‘Lucy,’ ‘Nikita,’ and the State of the Female Action Movie

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There’s a scene about halfway into Luc Besson’s Lucy, which finds Scarlett Johansson’s title character striding down a luxury hotel hallway in slow-motion, a gun in each hand, as the operatic music favored by the film’s supervillian swells on the soundtrack. It’s a scene you’ve seen in a million other disposable action movies, but it packs a giddy, sneaky punch here, and not just because it’s well directed by Besson (though it is), or because Johansson is so exuberantly sexy (though she is). The scene works, jumps from the screen and bounces around the auditorium, because the sight of a tough female action hero is still rare enough to give the audience an extra jolt. Say what you will about Lucy, which is an absurdly silly and sometimes aggressively stupid movie, but it’s at least interested in showing us something new.

Besson is a filmmaker whose productivity is matched by the unevenness of his filmography—for every Leon the Professional or The Fifth Element, there’s two or three From Paris With Loves or Transporter sequels. But he’s one of the few male action auteurs who has displayed a consistent interest in female protagonists, from Angel-A’s title character to Leon’s Matilda to Nikita in La Femme Nikita, his breakout film, released nearly 25 years ago. A fresh look at Nikita, particularly in comparison to Lucy, shows how far he’s come in a quarter-century, but it also shows how depressingly little progress cinema as a whole has made in the same period.

Because the sad fact of the matter is, if Nikita were released now, it would play as barely less a novelty than it did in 1990. Sliding into theaters between Aliens’ Ripley and Terminator 2’s Sarah Conner, Nikita is transformed, over the picture’s running time, from a comatose junkie into a fast-moving, fast-thinking killing machine; she’s quite literally unconscious in the picture’s first shoot-out, but her three years of training make her into a ruthless, powerful government assassin. We first get an idea of what she’s capable of in a tightly constructed sequence where her birthday dinner interrupted with an unexpected assignment, presenting the indelible image of star Anne Parillaud in a stylish (and small) black dress taking out thugs and henchmen, all legs and guns and attitude.

I make this note not as objectification, but as statement of fact: what makes the female action hero more interesting than the male counterpart (at least at this point, when they’re so much rarer) is the ability to compliment violence with sexuality and femininity. Parillaud’s performance is genuinely nuanced and multi-layered; she plays up the character’s vulnerability and toughness, occasionally using one to explain the other. She’s a killer, but not necessarily a cold-blooded one; she breaks down, believably, in the scene before the injection which she believes is going to kill her, voicing the character’s complexity and pain as she wonders why her mother hasn’t come for her (“Why isn’t she here?” she asks. “Can’t we just wait a little longer?”).

Significantly, Lucy’s biggest and boldest emotional beat is maternal as well. In a long, unbroken (if memory serves) take, our heroine places a call to her mother during an operation to remove the bag of drugs that has opened in her stomach; in that bravura scene, Johansson puts across the character’s palpable, understandable fear. And then she puts it away, because there’s work to do.

Such momentary breaks from Lucy’s action beats (and sci-fi mumbo jumbo) are welcome; they give the picture a beating heart, and ground this ridiculous scenario in something resembling reality. Make no mistake, Johansson is a real action star—which is made clear, paradoxically enough, not in the scenes where she’s kicking and shooting and moving people with her mind, but in the scenes where she is motionless. Besson takes his sweet time before moving in to her first action beat, lingering from multiple angles on this image of his star at rest, giving us the windup before the pitch.

Watching the two films back to back (which I recommend) is instructive when considering the patience and pacing of action cinema, then and now; Nikita spends a leisurely hour on the set-up, whereas Lucy parachutes us in to a scenario all but already in progress. There’s an efficiency to the exposition, and to the film in general; it runs but a lean 90 minutes (or, to put it another way, you could nearly watch it twice in the time it takes to suffer through Tran4mers).

But Besson’s use of perspective in that opening is also worth noting. In Nikita, he views his heroine as an outsider—she’s fierce, feral, like a wild animal, and she is almost entirely seen through the eyes of the man who must “tame” her (and, later, the dullard who domesticates her). There’s no such removal in Lucy; from the beginning, we know and see only what she does, which not only creates gutsy tension and a few laughs, but bracing empathy. We’re with her, from frame one.

Lucy is too much of a mess for true greatness; it’s riddled with plot holes and unanswered questions, it is predicated (as you’ve probably heard) on a widely debunked scientific theory, Johansson’s choice to gradually replicate the vocal inflections of Community’s Abed is a peculiar one, and the film’s attempts at philosophical introspection mostly land with the thud of a dumb movie that thinks it’s smart. But the picture’s energy and style are undeniable, and frankly, it’s one of those occasional films where buying a ticket is like casting a vote—in this case, for more girls with guns at the movies. Marvel’s continued reluctance to spin off Johansson’s Black Widow into her own vehicle remains fishy (it’s always struck this Avengers fan as odd that only the white guys in the crew—save Renner’s Hawkeye, and c’mon, who cares about him—get their own movies), but make no mistake: Lucy defies gravity, moves matter with her mind, sees through walls, and disappears into thin air. Lucy is an honest-to-God female action superhero origin story, and to that I say, it’s about goddamn time.