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updated: 7/24/2014 3:14 PM

Sci-fi thriller 'Lucy' a breathless mix of silliness, smarts

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  • In "Lucy," Scarlett Johansson plays a woman with the ability to see wireless cellphone signals showering the skies.

    In "Lucy," Scarlett Johansson plays a woman with the ability to see wireless cellphone signals showering the skies.

  • In "Lucy," Scarlett Johansson confronts Chinese enforcers.

    In "Lucy," Scarlett Johansson confronts Chinese enforcers.

  • Video: "Lucy" trailer


"Lucy," Luc Besson's cautionary thriller about the dangers of being too smart, is a breathless piece of stylized sci-fi action inspired by graphic novels, M-rated video games and classic car chases from "The Blues Brothers" and "To Live and Die in L.A."

It carries just enough basis in scientific fact to cement the progressively sillier parts of the story. And, let's face it, any movie with a gun-toting Scarlett Johansson taking names and kicking butts (more the latter than the former) can't be tedious.

It's fascinating to see how French filmmaker Besson explores the "what if" proposition of someone achieving 100 percent brain function -- we normally use about 10 percent -- even as "Lucy" itself fails to achieve 100 percent of its potential as a female empowerment thriller.

Johansson plays Lucy. She's minding her own business in Taiwan when her desperate ex-boyfriend handcuffs a mysterious attache case to her wrist, and the only way to remove it is to visit a scary guy named Mr. Jang ("Oldboy" star Choi Min-sik) in a corporate high-rise.

Lucy eventually discovers the case contains an experimental synthetic super drug called CPH4. Next thing she knows, she wakes up with a baggie of CPH4 surgically planted in her large intestine.

Before she and three other reluctant international drug mules can deliver the goods to Rome, Berlin and Paris, a sleazy guard kicks Lucy in the groin for refusing his advances. This releases the CPH4 into her system, turning her eyes purple and forcing her to re-enact Fred Astaire's "Royal Wedding" dance on the walls and ceiling, but in excruciating pain.

Lucy, being much smarter than 10 minutes earlier, realizes that the drug is slowly boosting her brain power, 10 percent. 20 percent. What happens if she gets to 100 percent?

This is where brain researcher Professor Samuel Norman figures in. He's played by the venerable Morgan Freeman, the go-to guy for wise and sagely authority figures who can also narrate documentaries and make them sound interesting.

They meet in Paris where Norman worries that her increasing IQ might render her unstable.

"Ignorance creates instability," she says. "Not intelligence!"

Meanwhile, Mr. Jang and his army of Matrix extras show up in Paris where they've apparently smuggled an entire armory of weapons past airport security and are intent on restaging the hotel assault from "True Romance" to reclaim the missing bags of CPH4.

"Lucy" makes for 89 fleet minutes of live-action comic book fun and thrills as Lucy evolves into an invulnerable goddess capable of manipulating people, objects, space and time. (She actually travels back to the pre-Big Bang beginning of the universe just for fun and giggles.)

With support from Norman and ruggedly handsome French police Capt. Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked), Lucy takes on the bad guys like a MENSA card-carrying Carrie, dropping them like flies through a Raid cloud.

Still, the story's premise has shortcomings. An all-knowing, superhuman main character makes for a fairly benign and relatively dull protagonist, since she cannot be hurt or killed by Mr. Jang's thugs.

Moreover, Besson, who has created strong female action characters in such films as "The Professional" and "Le Femme Nikita," squanders an opportunity to have his leading lady actually respond to her dire situation as a woman.

Despite Johansson's formidable presence and powerful physicality, Lucy becomes little more than a clone of the standard-issue action-figure male who gets what he wants at all costs and remains unaffected by the human collateral damage he leaves in his wake.

"All the things that made me human are fading away!" Lucy cries.

Here, Besson suggests that intelligence is inversely proportional to empathy and morality, a depressing and frightening proposition, perhaps a remnant from 1950s science-fiction thrillers featuring mad scientists as villains.

In "Lucy," Johansson's character isn't all bad.

She's just gone that way.

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