After a decade when the only person to take her seriously was Woody Allen, Scarlett Johansson seems to have found her groove of late, with the new actioner “Lucy” as further confirmation of her niche.
She’s been a poker-faced Russian comic book heroine in “The Avengers” universe, a murderously humorless alien in “Under the Skin” and a voice a guy could fall in love with in “Her.” And that’s the polished skill-set she brings to “Lucy,” a vulnerable college student whose poor choice in beaus gets her tangled up with a Korean/Taiwanese mob about to unleash an irresistible new drug on Europe.
Lucy resists the pleas of Richard (Pilou Asbæk) to deliver this briefcase, so he just handcuffs it to her and sends her in to meet her fate with Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi).
Jang’s bloody hands and the bodies he steps over to get to her make Lucy whimper in fear. And that’s before she realizes what his associate, “The Limey” (Julian Rhind-Tutt) has in store. They need to transport this potent new drug and she’s to be one of the couriers. They knock her out and sew it into her intestines.
“I’m afraid it’s our business model.”
But an unexpected beating makes the drug leak into her system, and that’s when Lucy starts to discover how “limitless” her potential truly is.
That “We only use 10 percent of our brain” stuff, basically recycled from the Bradley Cooper thriller “Limitless,” is delivered by Morgan Freeman in a lecture in Paris, while Lucy struggles to survive Taipei long enough to get on a plane to meet him.
Johansson gets a marvelous, simple phone call scene where she tells her mother, “I feel everything — space, time … the rotation of the Earth, the heat leaving my body.” And that’s just the beginning. Big numbers on the screen tell us when she clears 20 percent brain usage, 40 percent and so on.
French action auteur Luc Besson, who turned to producing with the “Transporter” and “Taken” movies, mounts a dazzling fast-motion car chase through Paris and scintillating Scar-Jo slo-mo faceoffs with legions of bad guys in this insanely ambitious popcorn popper.
Effects get across the evolved state Lucy is headed for, and simple, comical intercuts of animal kingdom footage show leopards hunting gazelles and the like, just to underline the predatory nature of Lucy’s first encounters with the bad guys.
Amr Waked plays a befuddled French cop caught up in her quest, and things turn deliriously silly and metaphysical as the film veers into Johnny Depp “Transcendence” omnipotence.
But Johansson never wavers, never varies the confident, robotic monotone that Lucy adapts as she controls her mind, her body and then others, and finally gravity and physics itself. She lets her hair fall, strategically, over her right eye and doesn’t blink or wrinkle her short skirts as she guns down or psycho-kinetically punches out or levitates the bad guys. It’s not a great performance, just a perfectly consistent one.
Besson’s script may let her (and Freeman) down in the third act, but the 89 minute-long “Lucy” is so brisk it’ll give you whiplash. Even marginal thrillers benefit from a director and star who have a sense of urgency and are as hell-bent as this on not overstaying their welcome.
“Lucy” (2.5 stars)
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, disturbing images and sexuality
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt
Written and directed by Luc Besson. A Universal release.
Running time: 1:29