Saturday, February 6, 2010

From Paris, with Mild Affection

Normally I would not go to see a movie like From Paris with Love. As much as Mr. Hollis-Lima might bemoan my penchant for mediocre action films, it's rare that I will pay $10.50 to see them in a theater. I should no doubt have missed John Travolta's ultraviolent Gallic romp, had I not known that Taken's creative team had reunited for Paris. Director Pierre Morel and producer Luc Besson had already made one great guilty pleasure action film; perhaps this would be another.

Taken wasn't really about a character; it was about an emotion: righteous anger. Still, Liam Neeson provided a wonderful central figure and action hero; he made the movie. From Paris with Love isn't a lone avenger movie; it's a buddy action film. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays Reese, an assistant to the US ambassador to France. With his pencil mustache – which, shockingly, survives the movie – and his penchant for chess, Reese is a rather comic figure. True, he does some US espionage work on the side, but it mostly consists of planting microphones and surreptitiously changing car license plates. James Bond he's not. Through a rather silly plot twist – an embassy shortage of spies – Reese gets partnered with veteran black ops agent Charlie Wax (John Travolta), the principal source of this film's R rating. Wax is bald, bearded, foulmouthed, amoral, violent, and perhaps too fond of coke, hookers, and his sidearm. Rhys Meyers carries the plot, while Travolta handles the action sequences.

From Paris with Love is full of action scenes and shootouts, though only one strikes me as at all inspired. Early in the film, Wax and Reese "infiltrate" (i.e. ventilate) a drug dealer's compound. Wax rushes up a spiral staircase, instructing his protege to stay a flight below him. The camera lingers on Rhys Meyers as we hear gunshots, screams, and thuds. Bodies bounce off the stairwell and roll to Rhys Meyers' feet, but we never see the violence. It's a funny and effective sequence, doubtless the film's high point. This isn't to say the rest of the movie's action is bad; it's just not terribly good, though I admit I did like the machine-gun-wielding chefs in the Chinese restaurant gunfight...

If not always plausible or original, the action sequences are at least shot well, with perhaps one exception – they're all well-choreographed and easy to follow. The one rather poorly done gunfight does at least have John Travolta running in slow motion towards the camera firing two Uzis at once as plaster mannequins shatter around him. At times, From Paris with Love gets so campy one imagines it as an eighties action movie.

For most of its running time, From Paris with Love is an ultraviolent comedy of bad manners, so the film's forays into moral ambiguity and/or seriousness seem out-of-place, especially since they are so quickly forgotten. At one point, several French police officers get blown up because Wax cannot save them without endangering thousands of lives; Reese protests and tries to save the ill-fated cops, but they die anyway. In the next scene, everyone's making jokes; Travolta even alludes to his character in Pulp Fiction. Our hero also recovers far too quickly after an absurd plot twist involving Reese's Parisian fiancée (Kasia Smutniak). While I've never been one for political correctness, it does seem rather odd that the film's villains are a) mostly ethnic and b) generally nameless. Heck, I'm not sure we ever hear the head terrorist speak – he lingers threateningly in a few scenes, drives a car in a chase sequence, and finally gets blown up by John Travolta's rocket launcher.

I've already spoken a bit about this film's plot, but I don't know that I've conveyed quite how ridiculous it is. Not only is it ridden with plot holes, but the film expects us to believe that most US intelligence cars are equipped with hidden rocket launchers, machine guns, and magnums. Travolta's character wears a watch that uplinks to and controls spy satellites. At least he doesn't drive an invisible car. The central terrorist plot is ridiculously over-elaborate and full of unnecessary risks. Characters act excited about the prospect of enemy intel, but then, for the sake of audience reaction, kill terrorists they could easily have taken alive. Most action movies, it's true, have such silly plot contrivances, but few movies hang together quite so poorly as this one.

Despite the film's title, From Paris with Love doesn't do too much with its setting. Yes, we see the Eiffel Tower and we hear "J'ai Deux Amours" on the radio, but the story could take place just about anywhere. It's a shame; there are few cities more cinematic than Paris. I didn't need a shootout in the Louvre or a fistfight atop Notre Dame, but couldn't we have had just a little more sense of place?

Taken was a great bad movie; From Paris with Love is only an OK bad film. It's a lot of fun, but all too often it strains our credulity without actually thrilling us. Its nods towards drama embarrass, while its action is by-the-numbers. Alas, it also does little with its Parisian setting. There are far worse action movies out there, but I wouldn't recommend seeing this one in theaters. Wait for the Netflix or don't watch it at all. Between this and Edge of Darkness, I think I'm done with trashy action flicks for a while. Any good art films on the horizon?

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