American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Imagine a stranger-in-a-strange-land revenge thriller about a wide-eyed Anglo bombshell (Scarlett Johansson) who gets kidnapped and abused in Taiwan by nasty, sweaty, shouting Korean gangsters and then escapes to seek justice. Then imagine this same movie starring, say, a lightning fast kick boxer who can knock a dozen opponents' teeth out before they can raise a single fist. Now imagine this same movie injected with a dose of apocalyptic science fiction, with the woman gaining strange powers as the story unfolds. Then envision midnight-movie touches mixed into the filmmaking: flash cuts of predators and prey enhancing otherwise typical scenes of plans being hatched; monologues about brain capacity and the true meaning of time coupled with psychedelic visions and wormholes and explanatory objects materializing from thin air.
That's Luc Besson's "Lucy," a thriller about an American woman who gets kidnapped into service as a drug mule bearing an experimental synthetic hormone, accidentally absorbs some of it, then sheds her physical, intellectual and perceptual limitations. I could describe five or six other kinds of movies that in some way also echo "Lucy." Sections may remind you of the original "The Matrix" and the last hour of "Akira," and the final ten minutes play like a Greatest Hits of science-fiction "trip" movies. You've seen a lot of the individual situations and filmmaking techniques in "Lucy" as well. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to identify one idea, scene or element in the picture that is not a cliche.
But the total package feels fresh. From the minute that Johansson's title character suffers a beating in captivity that ruptures the drugs in her stomach and releases them into her bloodstream (a Yankee nightmare), the film enters a realm of continual delight, though not always surprise. There's no point naming any of the other major characters, as there really are no other characters, only types: the arrogant fat-cat drug dealer (Choi Min-Sik) who thinks he can control the short blond drug mule and learns the hard way that he can't; the brilliant, deep-voiced scientist (Morgan Freeman, who else?) whose theoretical studies of the human brain's untapped potential make him an information source and then finally a kind of partner-savior to Lucy; the handsome nice-guy Parisian cop (Amr Waked) who assists Lucy during her climactic mission to acquire more of the experimental hormone to ingest and become whatever it is that she's becoming: a 1950s sci-fi monster, probably—the kind that cannot be killed because everything you shoot at it makes it stronger and hungrier.
Lucy is little more than a type herself—a representative of humanity in its un-mutated, non-super state. Johannson's mid-career transformation from husky-voiced ingenue to intensely physical matinee idol is one of the more fascinating arcs in American cinema. It's only her control over her body, voice and eyes—and maybe our awareness that her performances in this movie, "Her" and "Under the Skin" are all of a piece; Lucy even uses the phrase "under the skin" at one point!—that stops "Lucy" from being tiresome. Her work keeps us from realizing that Besson's script has botched the chance to tell a deeper story, one that's not just bombastically exciting and superficially clever, but quietly tragic.