From Paris with Love (France, 2010)

February 04, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
From Paris with Love Poster

Sometimes, movies aren't about plot and character. Art films can be more about how they look and feel than whether they tell a coherent or engaging story. Musicals can be all about song and dance. And action films can be gauged by how well they mix the adrenaline and testosterone cocktail that movie-goers are expected to imbibe. Such is the case with From Paris with Love, a production that views exposition as a necessary evil and dispenses it as quickly as possible so it can get back to shooting people and blowing things up. The movie is intellectually flat but viscerally involving and keeps the pace at such a consistently high level that it can become exhausting. With its wink-and-a-nod approach, it recalls some of the campier action epics of the 1980s, when icons like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis strode across the cinematic landscape sowing death and destruction. Everything's fast and furious, the good guys rarely miss, and the bad guys rarely hit.

From Paris with Love comes out of Luc Besson's factory. Besson is the French filmmaker who makes American action films with more verve than Americans. His movies are usually in English and often feature recognizable Hollywood names. In this case, the A-lister is John Travolta who, as a kick-ass hero, is a little out of his comfort zone, but appears to be enjoying it. With a shaved pate, he looks a little like Mr. Clean and acts like a melding of James Bond, Martin Riggs, and Rambo. The screenplay also remembers Travolta's role in Pulp Fiction and plays homage to it with an in-joke that Tarantino buffs will immediately recognize. (Hint: guess the character's favorite food in Paris.)

This is a mismatched buddy film and follows most of the conventions of the genre. It is told from the perspective of the intellectual newbie, James Reece (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), who is the assistant to the American ambassador in Paris. He's in training to be a secret agent, but his assignments are bland, allowing him to spend his days playing chess with the ambassador and his evenings snuggling with his attractive fiancé, Caroline (Kasia Smutniak). Enter superspy Charlie Wax (Travolta). James is assigned to the profane, violent killing machine as his driver/partner and, before they have known each other for an hour, the body count has started to mount. At first, it appears that Charlie is in France to take out a bunch of drug dealers who caused the death of the Secretary of Defense's daughter. But that's a smokescreen. His real purpose is to eliminate a terrorist cell before the members can go active and move against American interests in France.

The story is far from airtight but it's good enough to get the viewer from Point A to Point B, which is all that's necessary in what would have been a B-grade action flick had it not been for Travolta's participation. In terms of its attitude and pace, I'd compare this to The Transporter (also from Besson) and Crank. Neither film took anything seriously and both were propelled by hard-hitting, no-holds-barred action. That's pretty much what's happening here. There is something that passes for a plot twist and, while I won't reveal it here, anyone who doesn't see it coming isn't paying attention.

Travolta chews the scenery with gusto, seemingly delighted to have a chance to attack this sort of role. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is buttoned-down, although most of what Rhys-Meyers does, at least until the end, is react (and carry around a vase full of high quality white powder). There's a priceless scene in a spiral staircase in which his job as rear guard forces him to dodge the bodies Travolta tosses from above - it's funny in a macabre sort of way. The chemistry between the two has a little of the Mel Gibson/Danny Glover Lethal Weapon vibe, but it isn't as well-developed. Surprisingly, considering the limited screen time accorded to it, the romance between Rhys-Meyers and Kasia Smutniak is effective. After only a couple of scenes, I accepted these two as lovers. Smutniak, a Polish-born actress, is making her first high-profile film for American audiences.

There's not much more to say about From Paris with Love. Director Pierre Morel generally does a good job with the action sequences, although his "style" borrows heavily from The Matrix and its derivatives and he occasionally becomes too enamored with shaking the camera. This is Morel's follow-up to Taken and, unlike the Liam Neeson thriller, it makes no attempt to capture any kind of realism. It's pure comic book/popcorn action. If that's your kind of movie, it's hard to go wrong with this one.

From Paris with Love (France, 2010)

Director: Pierre Morel
Cast: John Travolta, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Kasia Smutniak
Screenplay: Adi Hasak, based on a story by Luc Besson
Cinematography: Michel Abramowicz
Music: David Buckley
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate
Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 2010-02-05
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1