Lucy

The Great Transhuman Empire

lucyHere’s a fact.  The name Lucy was given to the first “person” we know about: a 3.2 million year-old hominid, whose discovery proved that our taxonomic family was bipedal before our brain size increased, shedding further light on human evolution (i.e. which primates we came from).  Here’s a fact about that Lucy: she used 100% of her brain capacity, and so do I, and so do you.

Ignoring the film’s issue of presenting urban legend as science (see here), Lucy lists between human drama and sci-fi goofiness, occasionally trying to remake Akira and 2001: a Space Odyssey in its structure and imagery.  The title character, played by Scarlett Johansson, is a grad student abroad in Taipei.  Her boyfriend of one week is worried that his employer, who overpays him for simple courier services, is up to something devious, and tricks Lucy into making today’s delivery in his place.  Of course, this is the day his employer, Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik) is expecting the delivery of a volatile drug that he and his identically black-suited mooks will sell for a fortune in Europe.  Jang decides to use Lucy as a drug mule, sewing a package of the drug – a tiny blue crystal – into her stomach.

While she’s being held, Lucy is assaulted by a bored henchman, who accidentally ruptures the package inside her and releases the drug into her bloodstream.  Just like that, she knows Kung Fu, how to use a handgun, how to navigate the city on her own, and how to fearlessly use violence and intimidation to get people to do what she wants.  She escapes captivity, has the package removed from her abdomen, and finds out what it is: CPH4 (made up by Besson, at least as far as its name), a synthesized version of a substance that pregnant women produce to help a fetus grow.  Apparently, when you ingest a whole bunch of this as an adult, you gain telekinetic abilities and all sorts of insight into how the universe works, as well as gradually losing your humanity in the process.  Lucy, who somehow knows what’s happening to her, phones her mother and reveals that she now vividly remembers details of her infancy, including nursing.  She then launches a solo attack on Jang, whom she inexplicably refuses to kill after decimating his security force and reading his mind in order to glean the whereabouts of the other three drug mules (she needs more CPH4 to continue transcending her own abilities).

Meanwhile, Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman) lectures a French university on what might happen if humans could harness a larger percentage of their cerebral capacity (I feel compelled to again point out that this is all nonsense; humans use one-hundred-percent of our brains at all times, and Besson should be embarrassed not only for perpetuating a dangerous myth, but for insisting that he spent years on this film’s “science” before even writing a script – Freeman delivers his lecture while his facial expressions tell us “Everything I’m saying is bullshit, and so can you!”).  With her newfound omniscience, Lucy discovers his research, reads all six-thousand pages of it in seconds, and hashes over the meaning of life with him.  Through a few conversations made up of profound tripe, they decide that the purpose of existence is to pass on knowledge, and Lucy devises a way to allow humans to finally learn to “use” their lives once she’s gone.  As she travels from country to country, memory to memory, era to era, she keeps French police captain Del Rio (Amr Waked) around as a “reminder” that she’s human (How so?  Because he’s handsome?), all the while being stalked by the Korean gangsters she left alive for plot convenience.

What works about the film is Scarlett Johansson.  The bad science and derivative story don’t get a pass, but with Johansson’s voice, what could have been a tough sit becomes pretty engaging, even in a universe where the highest of minds produce philosophical drivel that wouldn’t impress a mildly well-educated middle-schooler.  But carry the film as Johansson might, a character needs to be characterized.  She almost is, but the plot gets in the way far too early, and the effects of the drug cause Lucy’s personality to become increasingly stoic and robotic.  But we still root for her, and it’s hard not to when her opponents are essentially the Devil (I mean, come on; does anyone imagine that Mr. Jang and his seemingly regenerative mooks have actual home lives?).  The biggest difference between she and her Akira predecessor, Tetsuo, is that Tetsuo’s inferiority complex and lack of control led him to transmogrifying legions of people into puddles of gore at the wave of a hand, whereas Lucy would rather leave them in suspended humiliation as she casually leaves the room in stiletto heels, taking their prized MacGuffins with her.

As for the rest of the cast, Waked shows some real versatility as the bewildered-but-capable police captain, and Choi, prolific as he is, turns it off to play a villain who has to be menacing no matter what he’s doing.  The Professor character, maybe, should have been played by someone other than Morgan Freeman.  Nothing against him; quite the opposite – a thin character’s thinness is made even more obvious when a famous actor, known for complex and intense performances, is relegated to inhabiting it.  The result is, “Hey, there’s Morgan Freeman doing something,” not “Hey, this film needed this character.”  In fact, the whole thing would have been passable if Lucy had gained the powers from the drug the exact same way, but without including the brain-capacity angle.  Think of how much room there would have been for characterization without all the big-headed pontificating and fake jargon.

The real emotional apex occurs when Lucy, in the 2001 part of the film, briefly travels back to the time of the primordial Lucy, who is busy drinking from a river.  Present-day Lucy extends her finger, and old furry ape Lucy reciprocates, recreating Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, but with two women (not to mention at least one person who actually existed).  I love that this can happen in a film, and that this film can outsell Dwayne Johnson’s leviathan-esque biceps.

Lucy (2014); written and directed by Luc Besson; starring Scarlett Johansson, Choi Min-sik, and Morgan Freeman.

Taken 2

What I do best

One or two good action pictures make it to the top of the pile each year.  Only once or twice a century, however, does a film sequel outshine its predecessor, especially when the original idea was as thin as a film like Taken.  Don’t be mistaken: the idea is still “any excuse for Liam Neeson to beat up non-Americans” (despite the fact that Neeson himself is Irish), but Taken 2 is better than the original for two reasons: it gives Neeson’s character an emotion or two, and it makes better use of its supporting cast.  The secret?  Acknowledging that they’re people.  Even if they hopelessly revolve around a male action hero, it’s nice that they seem important to him, and Taken 2 focuses more on the theme of fatherhood and responsibility (even if it does so mostly with action) than the first film, which only sought to find new ways of piling bodies as quickly as possible.

The story follows Bryan Mills (Neeson) and his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace) as they try to resume their lives after the events of the first film, in which Mills saved Kim from a ragtag group of Albanian criminals and sex traffickers.  The biggest conflict in Mills’ life is now whether he can train Kim to ace her driver’s test.  He’s also spending more time with his ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), whose new boyfriend happens to be a Spiteful Sleaze.  Before the charming family scenes, though, we witness Murad (Rade Šerbedžija), father of Marko, a goon who met a particularly unsettling demise at Mills’ hands in the first film, making plans with his own goons to take revenge upon Mills.  Considering the fact that Mills killed this man’s son in order to save his daughter, I think there must be a circular logic meme in there somewhere.  Long story short, Murad’s men kidnap not Kim, but (surprise!) Mills and Lenore, who are just beginning to reconcile their relationship.

This is where it gets good: in a very nice role reversal, teenaged Kim must save her parents from the bad guys.  It doesn’t happen instantly, either.  A lot of time is spent alone with Kim, who takes some direction from her father over the phone and improvises the rest.  It takes some suspension of disbelief concerning law enforcement and witnesses, considering a few of the things Kim does might render her an international terrorist in real life, but it’s wonderful to see her evolve into a breathing organism as opposed to the cardboard “teenage girl” stock character she played in the original.  And of course, Maggie Grace, who shone as Shannon on TV’s Lost, is second-to-none when it comes to crying convincingly on screen.  Best of all, she gets to play a person with real concerns and genuine bravery – and she gets to do most of it while fully clothed!

Once freed from prison, Mills teams with Kim to rescue Lenore, who is still in the clutches of Murad and his dedicated team of bloodthirsty fighting machines.  The film then becomes a somewhat formulaic two-way cat-and-mouse game between Murad and Mills, who must fight his way through legions of enemies before he, Murad, Kim, and Lenore are the only remaining players.  Refreshingly, Murad’s henchmen are in limited supply, and it’s pretty easy to keep track of roughly how many he has left because the same faces repeatedly show up throughout the chase.  Additionally, it’s easy to sympathize with the mostly one-note Murad, thanks to Šerbedžija’s dependably dedicated acting: he lost his son; why wouldn’t he want some resolution?  But he makes one too many villainous decisions to escape this film alive.  On the other hand, his followers are viciously devoted to torturing and killing Mills.  Marko (Murad’s son) must really have been the toast of Albania for these guys to be so convicted.

Like this year’s The Bourne Legacy, Taken 2 opens the possibility of a sequel, but does not promise, require, or guarantee it.  It’s a good action film with some subtlety and a fair attempt at character.  While it does include the unfortunate trope of non-American villains who could be any race to an American audience (just look at Šerbedžija, a Serbian actor who constantly plays Russian and Bulgarian characters), it doesn’t involve the obligatory sexual objectification of white women that was heavily featured in the original Taken, nor is Mills as much of a ruthless brute as he once was.  Nearly every bad vibe is gone, stripping the film down to a likeable action flick wisely contained in its own drama.  It’s not the highest film art of the year, but you don’t go into something like this expecting Rob Roy, do you?

Taken 2 (2012); written by Luc Besson; directed by Olivier Megaton; starring Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Jensson, and Rade Šerbedžija.