Return 'From Paris With Love' to Sender
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
"From Paris With Love," the new action flick from "Taken" director Pierre Morel, isn't so much actively bad as it is casually generic. Bolted together from familiar parts -- the mismatched partners, the Parisian locations, the drug-dealing and plot-planning bad guys -- it feels entirely too off-the-rack to come from a city known for made-to-measure fashion. "Taken" wasn't high art, but it had three things going for it: a low-tech, close-to-the-ground feel, the undeniable charisma of Liam Neeson and the pure motivational spine of a father trying to retrieve his daughter from kidnappers. "Taken" worked as well as it did in no small part by combining two seemingly separate ideas -- "Daddy knows best" and "Daddy knows karate" -- to make for a family-values action flick where the only thing stronger than a father's love was the force of his kung-fu blows. "From Paris With Love" tries for a similar mix of action escapism and high-minded gravitas, but the two cancel each other out more than they work together.
The script here is by Adi Hasak, based on a story by Luc Besson, but it might as well be the product of a computer program, one where you fed in every action film of the past 20 years as mathematical data and, based on that information, got 95 minutes of script shot out of the printer tray. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays James Reese, aide to the Ambassador in the American embassy in Paris. Reese occasionally does odd jobs for America's intelligence apparatus and dreams of more, even as he tells his girlfriend Caroline (Kasia Smutniak) tall tales about how important his work is. Reese dreams of making the jump to the big leagues, but when that call comes, it's nothing like he expected, starting with having to get field agent Charlie Wax (John Travolta) out of a French customs interview room at the airport. And Wax is rude, crude and c-c-c-crazy. As Reese follows him from drug den to terror cell, though, the question is if Wax is a loose cannon or a straight shooter.
Travolta looks like he's having the time of his life shooting, looting and shouting his way through France, a gun in each fist and a snappy one-liner always on his lips. (After some light ultraviolence, Wax praises his own work: "Now tell me that wasn't some impressive s**t.") The better question is if we are having a good time, and that's a harder question to answer. Travolta still has sway, swagger and bluster, to be sure, whether he's tearing into a room of thugs or a "Royale with cheese" (a gag that, while self-indulgent, still gets a smile). The problem is that Charlie's so under-written as a generic wild man of action that it's hard to care about his mission or his methods. Also, while I normally think that commenting on an actor's physical appearance is beneath film criticism, the styling-and-wardrobe choices made here for Travolta are disastrous. Swaddled in bulky cargo pants and a leather jacket, neck wrapped in a shapeless scarf and enduring a mismatched goatee and shaved head, Travolta looks like nothing less than a malevolent Easter Egg.
And, in many ways, Jonathan Rhys Meyers doesn't fare much better, saddled with an American accent made of vowels as flat as the script. Will Reese learn how to be a real man -- shooting, swearing, getting the job done -- from Wax? Will the terror attack on the African Aid summit be stopped? Will there be a block-rocking chase sequence that ends with a foreign-made car blowing up real good? You don't need a Magic 8 Ball -- which, also, is kind of what Travolta looks like -- to know the answers to all of these questions are "Yes."
There's one firm and solid twist in "From Paris With Love," but, again,it isn't set up at enough length and with enough skill to make us do more than briefly pause in crunching our popcorn. "From Paris With Love" is more bland than bad, more generic than good; a disposable bit of filler that sounds all too familiar even with the French accent of the story and setting wrapped around the characters and plot. Morel's got an eye for action and a two-fisted, get-the-job-done sense of style, but "From Paris With Love" gives him so little to actually work with that you have to hope the next time he goes to make a film he'll spend more time reading scripts with care than he will shooting action with flair.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.