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Movie reviews: 'Lucy,' 'Hercules'

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"Lucy" (R) ***1/2 (out of four)

The title seems nondescript and lame going in, but even that weak link evolves in "Lucy," an explosive, thought-provoking action thriller about the evolution of the human mind, spotlighting the continually developing action career of Scarlett Johansson. If Marvel had any doubts that Johansson could carry her own action movie following supporting roles in "Iron Man 2," "The Avengers" and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," the superhero filmmakers better start spinning an expansive tale for the actress known the world over as Black Widow.

Johansson stars as Lucy, an ordinary woman who falls into the wrong company while living abroad in China. Inadvertently getting mixed up in an international drug trafficking ring run by a vicious mobster (Min-Sik Choi), Lucy is accidentally infused with an overdose of a synthetic drug that doesn't kill her, but markedly increases her brain capacity far past the 10 percent threshold humans are thought to be capable of using.

Also starring Morgan Freeman as a scientist Lucy reaches out to when her brain capacity rapidly expands (hearing Freeman explaining his theories of the brain when reaching 20, 30, 40 percent of its capacity and so on, feels like a "Through the Wormhole" episode), "Lucy" is short on star power, but as the movie rolls on, it really doesn't need it.

Freeman is merely a side player to Johansson, who owns the role like none other she's owned before in her mostly over-rated career. As her mind develops and her body and the space around her become a playground for the unexplained, Johansson anchors herself in a cold, robotic state, yet somehow musters an effective amount of emotion and captivating presence along the way.

While there are certainly better movies about the mind (chief among them Christopher Nolan's brilliant "Inception"), "Lucy" seems to be an amalgam of "X-Men" (particularly the mutant mind of Professor Charles Xavier) and "The Matrix," and even gives you a sense of what "Transcendence" would have felt like if it would have actually worked. The movie's ideas certainly brings to the fore larger themes than anything else we've seen in theaters this summer.

The unseen star of "Lucy" is director Luc Besson, who makes the film accessible amid the controlled chaos, even when it ventures into scenes that are outright bizarre. In the film's oddest turns, Besson even seems to borrow a few pages from Terrence Malick's horribly overrated "Tree of Life" – the big difference being that Besson's esoteric scenes actually work. Whether it's interspersed cuts of wild creatures on the planet, trips back and forth through the dawn of time and the present, and in a much larger sense, the infinite spaces of the universe, "Lucy" turns into a real mind-bender.

It's always a thrill at the movies when you can actually use all 10 percent of your brain's capabilities to figure out what's going on, and "Lucy" doesn't want you to think any less.

"Hercules" (PG-13) **(out of four)

Even Dwayne Johnson's solidly developed box office muscle isn't enough to lift up "Hercules," a disappointing sword-and-sandals adventure that provides an uneven mix of tongue-in-cheek humor and brutal action. The arrows that fly throughout the film should hit the target for those looking for mindless summer entertainment, but leave anybody looking for any sliver of substance exasperated and asking for much more.

Johnson stars in the title role, the demigod son of Zeus who turns into a sword for hire for the King of Thrace (John Hurt) to help the kingdom's ill-prepared soldiers mount a battle against a vicious warlord. The king, however, is not all that he seems, leaving Hercules and his band of mercenaries outnumbered in a bloody battle that could threaten the future of the kingdom.

Johnson has gotten by in films for years thanks to his natural charm and charisma, and even showed tremendous progress as an actor in the surprisingly funny "Pain & Gain." "Hercules," however, is a big step back: he's interesting enough to hold your attention, but ultimately disappointing because he's capable of so much more. His brawn, of course, is literally supposed to carry the film (hey, he's Hercules), so you can't fault him for flexing his muscles; it's just that apart from some tongue-in-cheek moments, there's no remarkable acting here.

Thankfully, the always wonderful Hurt is there to prop Johnson up, along with Joseph Fiennes in a much smaller turn as King Eurystheus. Ian McShane steals the film, though, as Hercules' hilarious ally, Amphiaraus, who despite his over-the-top efforts can't seem to fulfill his destiny of dying a spectacular death in battle.

While the action is fast-paced and violent, director Brett Ratner doesn't come close to the glory of such films as "300" and its follow-up "300: Rise of an Empire," which it clearly is aspiring to be. True, the "300" films were fast-paced, too, but unlike "Hercules," they were defined by visual flair and one resolve, instead of trying to inject humor into it to try to make things interesting. "Hercules" just feels like a hapless par-for-the-course action movie in comparison.

Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. He annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for BringMeTheNews, “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.

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