When it comes to sheer comic-book fun, few summer movies deliver a more consistent, satisfying, thoroughly enjoyable shot of cinematic jouissance than the delightfully adventurous actress Scarlett Johansson's latest bit of strange, Lucy.
Heady, one might even say intellectually endowed - and at the same time deeply, thoroughly silly - this English-language entry from writer-director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Nikita) is a dynamic melange of conflicting genres balanced on a high wire of pure irony.
It's at turns a violent thriller that pits Johansson's character Lucy against the international drug underworld and a joyous piece of speculative sci-fi about the mysteries of the human brain. And the whole thing is framed by a neurology lecture with nature films featuring lions, monkeys, rats, and the like.
Johansson, who delivered a chilling and ultimately heartbreaking performance in Under the Skin, plays a college student in the Taiwanese capital of Taipei whose boyfriend gets her embroiled with a Korean drug lord.
Asked to deliver a suitcase full of a new designer drug called CPH4 to the big boss Mr. Jang (Oldboy's Choi Min-sik), Lucy is held at gunpoint and forced to become a mule: A surgeon opens up her belly and inserts a large bag of the cobalt blue crystalline powder into her.
Besson keeps things light by resorting to an old Looney Tunes trick: intercutting the super-violent crime scenes with images from the natural world. When Lucy is about to walk into Mr. Jang's office, we're treated to an image of a mouse sniffing at a piece of cheese in an old-school mousetrap. When Jang's muscle boys grab Lucy, we get images of a gazelle chased, caught, and killed by a jaguar.
Then there's the lecture.
While evil goes down in Taipei, super-smart neurologist Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) is delivering a lecture in Paris about the power of the brain and the fact that humans use only 10 percent of it. (A widely held belief that's pure nonsense according to actual neurologists, who say we use most, if not all, of our brain.)
What would happen, the prof asks, if we could unleash the power of 20, 60, even 100 percent of our neural network?
We'd be able to read other people's minds; to control electrical appliances and computers by will; to move matter with thought. We'd become gods!
And so it comes to pass: When the bag of CPH4 in Lucy's tummy breaks, she receives a massive infusion of the stuff that gives her brain a serious jumper-cable bang.
Smarter than Einstein, as wise as the Buddha, and more lethal than Bruce Lee, Lucy sets about defeating the gang. Her real goal, though, is to find the prof so she can tell him, show him, teach him her discovery: the Meaning of Existence!
Want to know the Meaning? You'll have to watch the picture to the end.
Lucy *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Luc Besson. With Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Amr Waked, Choi Min-sik. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.
Parent's guide: R (strong bloody violence, sexuality, smoking, drug use, profanity).
Playing at: area theaters.