Those French. They may look down their collective noses at fat Americans, but they sure do love the way we get s**t done. Luc Besson– cinema’s most prolific Frenchman— has unleashed another action drenched story template (ala Taken, The Transporter) and cozied up with his “Besson School of Filmmaking” graduate Pierre Morel (Taken and the upcoming Dune remake) to offer up the guiltily pleasurable From Paris With Love.
Together, Besson and Morel massage French-American relations like it’s nobody’s business. If there was ever an homage to the American action stereotype, From Paris With Love is it; a story-lite action flick that knows exactly what it wants to be and clocks in with a lean and functionally breezy 95 minutes to deliver the goods. Morel’s crafted a movie that placates its American audience with backslapping proclamations like “We saved your frog leg eating asses in two World Wars!” and gun-loaded, badly behaved, star-spangled ass kicking, but alternately winks at its French viewers with a nod of “stupid cowboys”.
It’s panderingly duplicitous… and it works.
From Paris introduces us to James Reece (Irishman Jonathan Rhys Meyers– vocally straining himself to nail an American accent). Reece is smart (hello! the dude plays a mean game of chess and has a pencil mustache). Reece is romancing a hot French girlfriend who’s gaga over him. Reece is completely uninteresting. He’s also a diplomatic attache at the American embassy in Paris. But Reece ain’t got no time for silly diplomatic flimflam– he also moonlights as an errand boy for a super-secret U.S. intelligence agency. Young, hungry and inexperienced, Reece pines for a shot at the sexy stuff: blowing holes in things under the guise of U.S.secret agent/special ops.
Reece also believes in The Secret, as just by thinking about spy games and changing a few license plates, he gets a call up to the bigs. An anonymous handler offers him the secret agent promotion he’s been begging for– right in the middle of his very French girlfriend’s marriage proposal. All Reece needs to do is meet his new partner at the airport and tag along for the ride. Once the mission is accomplished, he’s in– no paperwork necessary. Reese high-tails it to the airport only to find his new partner, Charlie Wax (John Travolta), all juiced up on energy drinks, bravado and a laser-focused dedication to verbally abuse French Customs Agents with a potty-mouth gangsta performance on loan from The Taking of Pelham 123. Soon, the two are on their way to a day of busting cocaine syndicates and Pakistani terrorist cells.
Reece quickly discovers, however, secret agent stuff is less James Bond and more John McClane. Wax is rowdy. He’s the kind of spec ops lone wolf that only exist in movies like this: chrome domed, goatee’d badasses who bare-handedly takes down a gaggle of gang members (at once!), snorts coke, talks jive, ravishes hookers and leaps through hails of machine gun fire without taking a scuff– all while delivering lead death, on target, to everyone else. In this case, Chinese drug dealers fronting money for terrorists just crazy over this season’s bomb vests.
From Paris With Love is a movie whose singular motivation is ballistic action. That’s no surprise of course; Besson-birthed movies are, for the large part, simple pot-boilers that meld standard action archetypes to kinetically executed action sequences. But Paris isn’t dumb as it is shallow– an actioner that plays it safe and doesn’t take any chances with its money-minting formula.
It’s a formula that relies on the magnetism of the actors playing their one-dimensional characters: IE- Liam Neeson in Taken and Jason Statham in The Transporter. As Reece, Jonathan Rhys Meyers doesn’t inspire a lot to be said. As the buddy film’s straight guy, he inhabits Reece with a bland precision that’s paint dry boring. Everything about the Rhys Meyers/Reese combination feels starched and pressed into milquetoast anesthesia. Travolta on the other hand goes bonkers to mix things up and crackles, pops and forces over-the-top enthusiasm into virtually every scene he chews. Travolta’s in a world of his own, so overblown and larger than life he manages to affably transcend the ludicrousness of Wax’ behavior.
But it’s not all adrenaline and gunfire. Besson/Morel do attempt adding dash of of food-for-thought into the mix: Reese has a mild character arc (pantie-waisted zero to cap-poppin’ hero!), Western vs. terrorist moralizing and even a goofy last-act lecture on love that thankfully turns its embarrassingly out of place lameness on– or through– its head. You’ve seen it all before, and possibly better, but with a refurbished Euro touch and little time to catch a mental breath, the well-traveled ride all feels a little more energetic.
Films like From Paris With Love are like those sparking, whizzing, multi-colored fireworks you throw on the ground. They buzz and hop and skip in a short lifespan of frenetic light and action, then quickly burn out. But unlike Besson’s previous inspirations, this one feels a little more refined, eschewing full-blown implausible doofiness with a more restrained implausible doofiness that delivers enough twist, fun and action to be smirked at and forgiven in its amusement.
From Paris With Love is C-grade material, but it’s C-grade material I unapologetically had fun with. Whether it’s Travolta’s latest career iteration (the crazy, “mother-eff'” lovin’ bad boy), a freeway chase with missile launchers or a well-played stairway scene that literally rains bodies, From Paris With Love gives the winter doldrums a crowd-pleasing kick in the pants.