An ordinary young woman is given extraordinary powers when she ingests too much of a designer drug.
It sounds like something Stan Lee and John Belushi might have concocted back in the day during the wee hours at Studio 54.
Unfortunately, the reality is twice as nutty and roughly half as entertaining.
In writer-director Luc Besson’s “Lucy,” the title character (Scarlett Johansson) is a carefree student living in Taiwan. We meet her outside a luxury hotel where Richard (Pilou Asbaek), the sketchy guy she’s been dating for a week, needs to make a delivery.
He’s carrying a briefcase — one of those metal jobs that was practically designed to carry illicit goods — and rattling off a string of increasingly lame excuses as to why he can’t just walk in and hand that briefcase to its intended recipient, Mr. Jang (Choi Min Sik).
Lucy wants nothing to do with any of it. She’s just trying to go home, shower and study. But before she can do that, Richard handcuffs that briefcase to her wrist, which somehow obligates her to go through with the exceedingly seedy delivery.
A terrified Lucy is soon hustled into an elevator by several well-dressed thugs and, after a tearfully tense exchange with the violent Jang, she wakes up woozy, in her underwear with surgical tools nearby. No organs have been removed, she’s assured. She’s just been sliced open so a packet of a hot new recreational drug could be inserted into her stomach to be smuggled abroad.
Not to nitpick, but if you’re going to use that method of concealment, wouldn’t you choose someone with, you know, an actual belly? After all, smuggling is a business based on volume.
Anyway, once she leaves the hotel, Lucy gets roughed up by a couple of goons in a locked room and, the next thing you know, she’s convulsing and sliding up the wall to the ceiling.
It turns out the drug that’s been leaking into her system since that beating ruptured the implanted bag is a synthetic version of CPH4, which we’re informed is something pregnant women manufacture to give their babies the energy to develop. Or something like that.
In Lucy’s case, the drug is enabling her to use more and more of her brain. While being sliced open to have the bag removed, she phones her mother to say goodbye in case things don’t go well. She can recall everything, including the pain of feeling her bones grow as an infant, she tells her mom. “I remember the taste of your milk in my mouth.”
And, really, what mother doesn’t want to get that call?
While all this is going on, professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman) is delivering a lecture on the brain’s potential, based on that old trope that humans use only 10 percent of their gray matter. While he speculates about what would happen if people could tap into 20 percent, 30 percent or more of their brains, Lucy is doing exactly that. She’s seeing phone calls, making people levitate and changing the way she looks on a cellular level. Then, on a flight to Paris to meet Norman, those cells start flying off her, and she realizes she needs more of the CPH4 just to maintain.
I’m a big fan of Besson’s work, from “The Professional” to “La Femme Nikita” to “The Fifth Element,” as well as the “Transporter,” “Taxi” and “Taken” franchises. (Well, the original “Taken,” anyway.) And “Lucy” features many of his signature touches: exotic locales, stylized mayhem, a throbbing soundtrack, a French cop sidekick and wrong-way and sidewalk driving.
But “Lucy” also feels familiar on a fundamental level. It plays like a mash-up of Johansson’s greatest hits of 2014. There’s the rapid evolution of Samantha in “Her,” the badassery of Natasha Romanoff in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and the vacant, otherworldliness of whatever she was in “Under the Skin.” There’s also a whole lot of “Limitless” as well as “Transcendence,” another Freeman movie, thrown in for good measure.
Besson clogs up the already brief 89-minute running time by distractingly cutting away to predatory nature scenes when Lucy first gets into trouble, as well as footage of natural disasters, mankind’s greatest achievements and a variety of animals doin’ it to illustrate Norman’s lecture.
And then, near the end, a bunch of ludicrously weird stuff happens, mostly for the sake of having a bunch of ludicrously weird stuff happen, and “Lucy” loses its grasp on whatever little bit of sense it had been making.
Norman tells us that Lucy has “access to previously unexplored cerebral zones.”
It would be too easy to wish that Besson had been given that same access.
It’s a borderline hacky thing to say.
But, sometimes, the easiest critique is the most accurate.
Christopher Lawrence reviews movies for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org