French director Luc Besson has made some incredibly visual films, including the wonderful “La Femme Nikita” from 1990, as well as “The Professional” (1994) and “The Fifth Element.” (1997)   His last work, however, was the very uneven and disappointing “The Family” (2013) with Robert DeNiro and Michele Pfeiffer.


His latest film -- “Lucy” -- combines a number of elements that Besson has had luck with before:  a very strong yet confused heroine, ruthless organized crime members, as well as plenty of stylized violence and action. 


Scarlett Johansson stars as the title character -- an American student living in Taiwan whose loser boyfriend pressures her to deliver a mysterious metal briefcase to an individual inside a high-rise hotel.   We don’t know yet what’s in the case, or who the intended recipient is, but we have a hunch it’s going to be dangerous because Besson cross-cuts between shots of the boyfriend trying to convince her to do the task, with footage of wild African cats studying their prey from afar.  It’s a great device that the director keeps using as the bamboozled young woman reluctantly delivers the case, only to be grabbed by Asian gangsters who were awaiting its arrival.


The first part of this movie is absolutely riveting, as the crime boss (well played by South Korean actor Cho-Min-sik) has Lucy taken to his hotel suite, where she undergoes an interrogation by telephone with one of the mobster’s English-speaking associates.  Johansson does a wonderful job in showing her character’s growing panic, which we see in extreme close-ups that Besson utilizes throughout the movie.  The tension leading up to the opening of the case is edge-of-your-seat filmmaking, which unfortunately then starts a slow, downhill slide once the contents are revealed.  Inside is a drug that eventually allows Lucy to use more and more of her brainpower, which she utilizes to battle her captors in ways that require an absolute suspension of believability. (The young woman develops more talents than a member of the X-Men, as she creates invisible force fields and levitates people at will.)


Lucy finds a friend in Professor Samuel Norman, (Morgan Freeman) a scientist who has extensively studied the potential of the brain and who counsels her as she pursues more of the drug.  Freeman is always good but his character really doesn’t have a lot to do but give scientific background.  Another featured character is Amr Waked (“Syriana”) as a dour-faced Paris policeman who helps Lucy fight off the ever persistent Asian gangsters.   The movie, though, really belongs to Johannson who does as much as she can with the material.  Her superhuman abilities allow Lucy to dispatch multiple bad guys as well as race a car through Paris streets in an impressive chase sequence. 


Eventually though, the movie comes to rely on a battery of abstract visual effects that seem to take over the movie.  Their inclusion feels less about making the story move forward, and more like the filmmakers had a big CGI budget and wanted to spend every last penny.


“Lucy” has a lot going for it, but the great promise of the early scenes deteriorates into filmmaking that’s more about style than substance.