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Lucy, film review: Scarlett Johansson will blow your mind in Luc Besson's complex thriller

(15) Luc Besson, 90 mins Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman
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A decade ago, Luc Besson seemed burned out as a film-maker. There was talk of his retirement. The director of Nikita and Léon was reduced to making animated features (the wretched Arthur and the Invisibles) and to overseeing the growth of his company EuropaCorp, a French version of a Hollywood studio that combines sales and distribution with production.

It would be overstating it to suggest that Besson is enjoying a major creative renaissance but Lucy is the best film he has made in a very long time. This is a movie that perfectly illustrates what makes him such a distinctive and infuriating director. Besson combines bravura imagery and ingenious ideas with large dollops of Gallic kitsch and silliness. His attempts at profundity are continually undermined by an infantile desire to throw in slapstick and action sequences for their own sake. What can't be denied is the brilliance of the execution. Lucy, partly shot in Imax, deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

Helped by the cinematographer Thierry Arbogast and by the virtuosity of the special effects technicians at Industrial Light and Magic, the veteran French director has delivered a film that really does induce the same sense of wonder that was found in the silent era in Georges Méliès' fantastical shorts.

The key concept here – promoted relentlessly in the marketing that always accompanies Besson films – is that average humans only use 10 per cent of their brain capacity. In order to demonstrate how somebody would function using the full might of their noggin, Besson devises an incredibly convoluted and complex thriller plot. Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is an American student living a riotous life in Taipei. Her ex-boyfriend persuades her to deliver a mysterious package to a businessman in an upmarket hotel. This package contains a synthetic drug called CPH4 that has mind-bending and enlarging properties. The businessman, really a gangster, forces Lucy and some other unfortunate Europeans to act as drug mules. She has a pouch of the stuff inserted in her guts. When this pouch bursts, she suddenly develops superhuman mental powers.

Having played an alien in Under the Skin and voiced a computer operating system in Her, Johansson is developing a reputation as an utterly fearless actress. She is ready to take roles that more timid Hollywood stars would recoil from instinctively. Lucy allows her to combine two sides of her screen persona: the oddball visionary and the action heroine familiar from Avengers Assemble. Johansson always keeps her poise. She also has an ironic detachment, as if she is at a slight remove from her character. Whether she is instructing a doctor how to remove drugs from her abdomen or using her telepathic powers to make her gun-toting gangster adversaries stick to the ceiling, she is strictly matter of fact in her manner. She helps anchor a film that might otherwise have seemed preposterous.

There are scenes in Lucy which are strangely moving, in which Besson briefly moves away from his kinetic, comic book-style storytelling. We hear the heroine reminiscing about moments in her earliest childhood that she could not possibly remember without the CPH4. As her powers increase, so does the inevitability of her demise – or, at least, that of her body. She can perceive things that she would rather ignore, ranging from her mortality to the potential health problems that her flatmate faces unless she changes her lifestyle.

Between the action scenes, there are also time-outs for philosophising about the nature of time, matter and perception. Lucy's sounding board is Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman), an academic whose area of research is precisely the untapped possibilities of the human mind. Freeman plays the role in just the way you would expect – with a solemn and dignified gravitas.

Besson borrows ideas and motifs from countless other films, including some of his own. The scene in which Lucy pinions a gangster boss to his chair by sticking blades through his hands owes an obvious debt to the extreme Asian thrillers made by Takashi Miike or Park Chan-wook. The more lyrical, metaphysical moments can't help but invoke memories of Terrence Malick movies such as The Tree of Life. Then, there are the outrageously silly sequences – most notably, a car chase through Paris in which Lucy drives like a maniac – that are in the spirit of Besson's own earlier films.

There is a sense that the screenplay is a puzzle that Besson himself has only partly worked out. He hasn't managed to introduce any meaningful romantic sub-plot. It is clear that the hard-bitten Paris cop chief (played by Egyptian actor Amr Waked) is besotted with Lucy. However, she is so far ahead of him intellectually, and he is so busy keeping Korean gangsters at bay, that there is no time for them to make anything other than the most cursory small talk.

Lucy may not make sense but it is refreshing to see Besson working at full throttle. The film has an energy and visual inventiveness that was almost entirely lacking in his last feature as a director, The Family, a lazy comedy-thriller in which an ageing mob boss (played by Robert De Niro) hides out in provincial France.

A French director tilting at an international audience, Besson himself often appears to be caught between different cultures and film-making styles. That confusion is reflected in Lucy but is part of the film's richness. From his thriller Nikita (1990) early in his career to The Lady (2011), his biopic of Burmese political leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Besson has often made films about strong and defiant female characters. Lucy may be confused and eccentric but it is stylish, provocative film-making. As an action movie with ideas, it is also a welcome antidote to the mindless, testosterone-driven fare – such as The Expendables – that has been clogging up screens this summer.