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'Lucy': 5 reasons the Scarlett Johansson film ruled the box office

'Lucy': 5 reasons the Scarlett Johansson film ruled the box office
Scarlett Johansson is an action hero with superior brain power in "Lucy." (Universal Pictures)

Brains prevailed over brawn at the box office this weekend (in a manner of speaking) as the Scarlett Johansson action-thriller "Lucy" collected $44 million, handily beating Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's sword-and-sandals movie "Hercules," which earned $29 million.

But how did "Lucy," an R-rated European action flick, trounce a PG-13 tent-pole with a proven action hero? Here are five reasons for "Lucy's" success.

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A catchy sci-fi hook: Credit writer-director Luc Besson for cannily turning a common bit of pseudoscience — the notion that humans use only 10% of our brains — into an action-ready premise. "Lucy" finds Johansson playing a party girl turned unwitting drug mule who accidentally ingests massive quantities of an illicit substance that expands her mental capacity, blessing her with superpowers including telekinesis, super-intelligence and mind control.

Never mind that the "10% of brain myth" is 100%  false — "Lucy" is a popcorn movie, not a neuroscience documentary.

Scarlett Johansson, action star: "Lucy" should mark Johansson's coming-out party as a bona fide action star. Although the 29-year-old is best known as a dramatic actress, earning critical acclaim for her performances in movies like "Her" and "Under the Skin," she has recently branched out into butt-kicking in Marvel movies such as "The Avengers" and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."

In the latter movies, Johansson has served as an ensemble player, but "Lucy" puts her front and center. So far, she's delivering: "Lucy's" opening ranks as the third-highest female-driven action movie of all time, behind Angelina Jolie's "Wanted" and "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider."

Luc Besson, crowd pleaser: "Lucy" is the latest 90-minute shot of adrenaline from Besson, the prolific French multi-hyphenate who helped bring the world "The Professional," "The Fifth Element," and the "Taken" and "Transporter" franchises. Clearly, he knows a thing or two about making kinetic pulp movies that resonate with mainstream audiences.

A summer of strong women: Besson is also a filmmaker with a penchant for crafting strong female characters, from Anne Parillaud's Nikita in "La Femme Nikita" to Zoe Saldana's Cataleya in "Colombiana." Johansson's Lucy is the latest example and comes amid a summer in which some of the biggest hits have been powered by compelling women, including "Maleficent" (with Jolie) and "The Fault in Our Stars" (with Shailene Woodley).

According to exit-poll data, "Lucy" attracted an audience that was evenly split between men and women; in contrast, "Hercules" appealed to a narrower audience, one that was about 58% male.

A slick marketing campaign: "Lucy" first popped up on many moviegoers' radar courtesy of a sleek, propulsive trailer showcasing the movie's high concept, Johansson's newfound action chops and Besson's deft touch for mayhem. Marketing for the Universal film continued to play up those elements while de-emphasizing "Lucy's" philosophical and metaphysical pontificating.

That was probably a shrewd decision — indeed, many critics found the film's philosophizing silly — though it likely contributed to "Lucy's" C+ CinemaScore, which suggests word-of-mouth will suffer. Time will tell if "Lucy" has enough brain power to endure at the box office in the coming weeks.

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