Over the course of his dozen-plus films as a writer-director, Parisian auteur Luc Besson has become known for his stylish inversions of schlock genre fare and a certain, shall we call it, Vive la femme attitude toward women.
Time and again, his movies place emotionally fragile female characters in physically perilous situations: a conflicted hit-woman struggling with the perils of her job in 1990’s La Femme Nikita, 12-year old Natalie Portman on the run as an assassin-in-training in The Professional, and Milla Jovovich’s universe-saving alien Leeloo in The Fifth Element (1997) among them. Besson’s latest multiplex offering appears set to follow that template. The director’s FX-heavy sci-fi thriller Lucy (which hits theaters Friday) presents Scarlett Johansson as a Taipei-based expatriate-turned-reluctant drug mule who, through a freak accident, taps into a reservoir of superhuman brain power—and ends up kicking no small amount of ass in the process.
With its 59-percent “freshness” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and prime popcorn movie season release date, Lucy arrives a little more than a year after Besson’s last outing as writer-director (the critically and commercially stillborn Michelle Pfeiffer-Robert DeNiro crime-comedy The Family). And if pre-release audience awareness surveys are to be trusted, Lucy could haul in as much as $40 million in its opening weekend to become Besson’s biggest stateside hit to date.
While the director, 55, stands as one of international moviedom’s most prolific content creators, his list of efforts that can be called “Un film de Luc Besson” remains relatively petite. That’s because writing-directing work often takes a backseat to Besson’s position as boss of EuropaCorp, the Paris-based studio he founded that’s known for churning out internationally accented action fare such as the Kevin Costner spy vehicle 3 Days to Kill in February. A rundown of the filmmaker’s credits as producer-writer—concocting and setting up film projects before outsourcing them to his go-to team of directors, including Pierre Morel and Olivier Megaton—speaks to Besson’s reputation in Hollywood as a prolific harvester of movie ideas who launches global film franchises almost at will while continuing to churn out Gallic blockbusters both sublime and ridiculous (Arthur and the Invisibles, anyone?).
Exhibit A: the Taken trilogy. In 2008, the first of the English-language French action-thrillers (starring Liam Neeson as a former CIA operative struggling to find his daughter after she is captured by sex-slavery traffickers) arrived with little box office expectation. But when the $25 million film shocked critics into a kind of puzzled enjoyment and took in more than $200 million globally, it effectively rebranded Neeson—formerly an Oscar-nominated Serious Actor—as a bankable action star. And after Taken 2 similarly turned a robust profit, Neeson returned for a third and final installment that’s due out in January, placing the Taken franchise on a very short list of European-made movie trilogies.
Before that, Besson could be partially credited with making Parkour a “thing” with the 2004 Paris ghetto-set action flick he wrote and produced, District 13 (as well as its less well-received sequel District 13: Ultimatum).
And while the less said the better about Taxi, the flop-tacular, Besson-written and -produced Jimmy Fallon/Gisele Bundchen/Queen Latifah vehicle (based, of course, on Besson’s hit French version), the filmmaker’s Transporter series definitely ranks high in his win column. Those three cartoonishly violent, meat-and-potatoes hits again saw Besson farm out directing duties, grafting Asian martial-arts action onto a decidedly European milieu of criminal intrigue and elaborate car chases, placing Jason Statham in the driver’s seat of a succession of luxury automobiles.
Today, Besson seems more intent on spending more time in the director’s chair after back-to-back outings as a producer-writer-director with The Family and The Lady—a biopic about the Myanmar human-rights activist and opposition leader Aung San Soo Kyi that premiered at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival in 2012. Besson has also returned to his roots depicting highly adrenalized female triumphalism with Lucy.
This post has been updated to reflect that Lucy does not have a 98-percent “freshness” rating Rotten Tomatoes. It has a 59-percent rating. EW regrets the error.