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Luc Besson's 'Lucy' worth discovering

By Mick LaSalle

San Francisco Chronicle

LAST UPDATED: 1:30 p.m. HST, Jul 25, 2014

Like some demented combination of "Taken" and Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," "Lucy," the latest from Luc Besson, is a full-out action movie — and a sober rumination on the nature of existence. It is both things, effectively and sincerely.

Like "Taken," which Besson wrote, it has a streamlined story involving international crime and presents a previously mild-mannered protagonist on a homicidal rampage. And like "The Tree of Life," it is bright and opulent, with lots of impressionist visuals, vigorous cutting and even a cameo by a gratuitous dinosaur.

The result is crazy, but in the best way. "Lucy" hangs together, not only through sheer velocity, but also from the unmistakable sense that this is no cynical product. It's an honest expression of the filmmaker's mind — his prurience, his paranoia, his grandiosity and his aspiration. Besson is one of those lucky artists whose genuine impulses are fantastically commercial.

In the movie's first moments, Scarlett Johansson, as Lucy, is forced to deliver a locked suitcase to "Mr. Jang" at a posh Taipei hotel. On the off chance this sounds like a good idea, Besson intercuts this with scenes of fawns being stalked by jungle cats. He further amps up the tension by having the hotel clerk get jittery at the mere mention of Jang. And when we meet him (Min-Sik Choi), his face is splattered with blood. Lucy, stupid to begin with and now stupid and terrified, is in way over her head.

Rated: R
* * *  1/2
Opens Friday

"Lucy" involves a brand-new illicit drug about to hit the international market. Through circumstances best discovered in the moment, some of that drug starts seeping into Lucy's system, resulting in a profound expansion of her abilities. At first, she's walking up the walls and onto the ceiling like Fred Astaire in "Royal Wedding," but then becomes focused, and she finds she is more than intelligent. She is a lethal genius.

Besson explains Lucy's transformation by cutting back and forth from Lucy to a professor (Morgan Freeman) lecturing on the mind's potential. Human beings use only 10 percent of their cerebral capacity, he says. The drug lets Lucy use more and more of her brain and take on undreamed of powers: telekinesis, mind control.

Besson invests "Lucy" with loving energy, simulating Lucy's perceptions and illustrating key points with brief cuts to the jungle, to urban scenes, arts performances, windmills, the Louvre, Rubik's cube. … We see the life force in trees, the waves and auras coming out of people, and a survey of New York City's topography from 2014 all the way back to prehistory.

You can scoff at Besson's philosophies and hypotheses, but to do that would miss what's in front of you. "Lucy" is an impeccably realized vision of Besson's view of things. That's the vision he was responsible to, and that's what he offers.

For Johansson, this is the second film in a row (after "Under the Skin") in which she plays a person of other-worldly intelligence, floating along in a daze of doe-eyed equanimity as she passes harsh judgment on her inferiors. It's hard to imagine there will be many more roles like this, but it has made for an interesting 2014.

As for Besson, he deserves acknowledgment as a French filmmaker who knows how to make American-style high-concept action movies better than most of his American counterparts. He never slows down, never falls in love with sequences at the expense of story, keeps his running times down and always remembers that it's all about emotion.

Besson is the only European filmmaker who takes as much pleasure in regularly demolishing his own hometown (Paris) as American filmmakers do in wrecking New York and San Francisco. Paris gets another serious working over here.

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