When it comes to bad movies, they just don’t make ‘em like they used to. Luc Besson’s Lucy looked, for all intents and purposes, like a sure-fire contender for worst movie of the year, filled with half-baked, overly-confident gestures at science and pseudo-intellect, all acting to crowd out an otherwise tepid, self-serious “splosions and skin-tight suits” movie. It turns out, for the most part, the movie is exactly that. But that’s not the surprise. The surprise is that Besson decided this would be the first of his patented European school of testosterone filmmaking in a good many years to actually fulfill its European origins. Yes, there’s the “it has talking” thing, sure, but that is not the subject of the previous sentence. Lucy is European not because it is smart, for it is not, but because it is crazy. And it is entirely willing to break the fourth wall, existing less as an action film proper than a dissent into giddy madness and art-school, color-coded energy.
Lucy isn’t really good, but it, at least, starts off on the right foot: an overly didactic idea – a woman, Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), has a bag of hyper-active neural-altering drugs sewn into her stomach to serve as human transport for a company, and the drugs accidentally enter her nervous system allowing her to access more of her brain than any human ever before – rendered fittingly primal. The final product is equal parts slideshow lecture and hard-edged brutal ballet. The mix is a huge mess, of course, and it could wholly benefit from a sleeker touch-over, but it’s not without a boatload of smaller pleasures more guttural than any of its meddling science twaddle.
Johansson, for one, is better than she’s ever really been here, and it is, if nothing else, the only film she’s ever really been good in outside her typical “soul-less in-human loner” mode (which she is wholly terrific at, admittedly). And when the film goes down that route by the half-way point, it uses her extremely effectively too, although this isn’t quite Jonathan Glazer levels of psychotic mastery here. Outside of Johansson, who commands the screen, Besson concocts a nice little three-piece suit for the film to slip into – colors that pop, all manner of cheery, non-nuanced inserts (mostly of animals in the wild so excitingly but goofily plopped into the film it’s hard to give a cold shoulder), and a ruthless breath of energy to rival Besson’s 90’s films before he got all Americanized. It’s a stupid film, filled with inane self-congratulatory dialogue and using high-brow material in the most insipid, temperamental kind of way. At the end when it becomes a pop Tree of Life it’s hard to say whether to cheer or cringe, but the aloof wonder of the film is, at worst, a curiosity of the most unhinged variety. The good is pure window dressing. But taste isn’t all when it comes to a meal, even if we think it is. Lucy is a hollow meal, but it’s coated in candy, and that’s worth at least something.
Antoine Fuqua has trouble balancing himself on the knife’s edge. With The Equalizer – his sloppy update of a 25 year old vigilante glorification television show – he doesn’t merely want to sell us on violence, but he wants to complicate it as a sort of mournful poetry. A kinetic, glib thrill ride is one thing, and an elegiac exploration of a self-destructive, lonely human being is another, and The Equalizer could have done well for itself as either, but instead it chooses both and struggles coming up for air. The Equalizer desperately wants us to both get on board main character McCall (Denzel Washington, in a highly convincing turn of the kind he’s been having for breakfast for a decade now) and his vengeance quest without irony and to lightly and un-dangerously critique him for the same, and that is just plain cheating.
It’s almost like how Training Day, Fuqua’s first Washington collaboration, insisted desperately, at the core level of story and functioning narrative, that Washington’s character was a horrible, soul-less person, and yet still visually wished to harp on how cool he was. There’s a good low-key simmering character study and menacing existential showcase about loss and loneliness in the Equalizer, but it is not the same movie where Denzel Washington times himself on how quickly he can kill a bunch of Russian mobsters as if it’s some kind of joke.
There are other more ethical issues at play, such as how tired these revenge thrillers are in this cynical age to begin with, and how the corporal violence only for corporal violence mantra continues to grip society. The idea that one of these guys go crunch some white collar bones for sapping the life energy of the general working class populace is unheard of, and would be considered gross, and yet this film gets a pass on its own fairly pro-vengeance stance? At least The Equalizer removes the “refined, upper-class Brit using his privilege to kill lower class streets” classist overtones of the show upon which the movie is based. As far as race is concerned, it’s notable that Washington seems to have a monopoly among black men on dishing out violence and films respecting him for it. As radical as the film might be for putting a positive spin on a black male dishing out violence, it would be more-so if production companies didn’t seem to deny this sort of role for other black men because they know America will be more okay with it if Denzel Washington takes the role instead.
But whether the film should get a pass ethically is one question, and whether it does enough as a film to earn the pass is another. And The Equalizer, small little cathartic bits aside, doesn’t do much of anything except wallow around in self-pity on end to earn that pass (look to another pro-vigilantism Washington film, Man on Fire, for a more difficult case; that film was both morally reprehensible and well-made, but this film isn’t good enough for the ethical quandary to cause much of an issue to begin with). Other fellow “dad action hero keeled over into mournful, prestige dad violent revenge thriller”, A Walk Among the Tombstones, released almost simultaneously to this film, at least understands character-centric direction and mournful style in a more meaningful sense. And it has a way better title to boot.
Hercules is troubled mightily by a halfhearted search for cohesion, straining to attain an identity equal parts low-brow attempt at lightly mocking historical revisionism (think diluted History of the World Pt 1, or a particularly self-aware ’60s sword and sandals film) and half every other stoic, sour-pussed modern history action epic. The two-fisted identity doesn’t serve the film well, with each little, inadvertent sliver of cheer counter-acted immediately and viciously by a cringe-inducing attempt at gravity. The whole idea, that of telling the “true” story of the myth of Hercules, is a bit of a conceptual drag to begin with, trading in bright and cheery lunacy for a gloomy poker-face, and the execution doesn’t help a bit. The comedy is muted by the film’s inability to truly reach for the nether-realms of cheerful anarchy, and the lightness of touch robs the film of any semblance of drama. The weird Seven Samurai pastiche doesn’t do the film any favors either.
The whole film is like that; every potential strength is soon counter-acted and all the mirth is spoiled with such common-place vigor it’s worth a good cry. It’s got Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, whose sprightly comic chops are now a known quantity, but it doesn’t know what to do with him. Worse still, the film occasionally detours into wholly un-earned attempts at character psychology that fail rather miserably, forcing Johnson to “act” rather than “be loopy”, and not playing to his strengths. Another minor plus: every scene inflicted with a case of the brown-and-grays has a nicely popping green just around the bend. But then these serve as appetizers for more brown. Dwayne Johnson and a nice green really simply aren’t enough these days, and Brett Ratner’s wholly uninspired direction and “mid-shots on mid-shots” battle scenes aren’t going to change that. I’d take an honest-to-goodness fantasy, a work that takes myth seriously and has fun with it, rather than a serious bore any day of the week. Hercules is only half-way there, and when it’s off, it’s way off.
Olympus Has Fallen
The opening half of Olympus Has Fallen sucks, in the way that self-important, middle-brow gravitas-baiting action films usually tend to suck when they get overly-weepy. Things improve from there, but then, really, where else could things have gone? Just about the only thing keeping it together is Antoine Fuqua, who, flaws aside, knows his way around a terse bit of flair. Under him, the movie clears it’s head a bit for the second hour, humbles itself, and stops trying to make us buy into the gravity of the situation. It finds itself merrily content to work on a much lower level, as a tense action thriller that exists only to usher audiences from shootout to shootout. In other words, the movie realizes it sucks, and accepts it to decent, if unexceptional results. At the very least, the lean-and-mean second half means it’s not so confused about whether it wants us to throw our fists up in awe or cringe in desperation and shock.
Even then, there are other more bare-bones flaws popping up like flies. The CGI is terrible, the production is generally chintzy, it feels like it was made in 1997 and not 2013, it copies a scene from Die Hard almost wholesale in the laziest possible manner, and the title is both self-indulgent and unnecessarily amorphous. The straight-to-DVD military-style superimposed text whose only use is to convey meaningless and unnecessary exposition in the laziest possible manner, is also particularly galling in this film, in that it gives us especially unnecessary information in an especially lazy manner here. It’s like every minor pleasure is a threat to the film’s badness, and it has to stack the deck against itself. At least it’s better than that other 2013 Die Hard movie. That one with the white house. And, oh yeah, that other, other one. The one with “Die Hard” in the name.