Royale with Cheese
With Jerry Bruckheimer concentrating on family-friendly adventures like Prince of Persia, an action movie void has opened: who will produce energetic, derivative, high-gloss, star-driven junk like the Gone in 60 Seconds and Con Airs of yore? Luc Besson, trash prince of Canal Plus, has heroically volunteered.
Besson has always been a prolific writer-producer-director, but with the success of Taken, a European production that nonetheless banked on Americans’ fear of seedy overseas wastelands like, um, Paris, he has positioned himself as a sort of Bruckheimer on the cheap. The brand isn’t quite so decadent – his Transporter series, for example, maintains the unpretentious utility of a top-notch-yet-low-rent James Bond knockoff – but with Bruckheimer himself looking for the next big theme park ride, Besson can afford to work in approximation.
From Paris with Love, which like Taken is directed by Pierre Morel from a Besson brainstorm, continues in that vein, not least through the hiring of Bruckheimer-sized movie star John Travolta. Travolta plays super-spy Charlie Wax, whose name you will not forget, not because Wax is a memorable character, but because his mild-mannered partner James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) repeats the name “Wax” in about half of his lines, as if participating in product placement.
For Wax, Travolta slips into the high-pitched imitation of machismo he used for Broken Arrow, Face/Off, and Swordfish, among others (yet never for an actual Bruckheimer production!); the only difference here is that Wax is a flamboyant, over-the-top good guy, not a cartoonish evildoer. He leads Reece, an ambassador’s aide desperate to break into the spy world, on a sloppy run through the City of Lights, punctuated with sequences that are supposed to be shoot-outs, but play a bit more like drive-by shootings, with Travolta as the car. (His merry huskiness makes the customary slow-mo shots weirdly believable).
This grinning amorality in pursuit of terrorists is probably established enough in action-movie lore to be considered timeless (or at least depressingly commonplace), but Morel and his writers still manage to evoke ‘90s action posturing with overwrought imitation-Woo action and overwritten imitation-Tarantino dialogue, complete with asides about language and pop culture. Travolta even quotes his own “Royale with cheese” line from Pulp Fiction; shameless and sort of sad, yes, but it at least provides a moment of cheek not wholly dependent on lip-smacking, graceless profanities.
Like many a Michael Bay movie, From Paris with Love turns histrionic with drama for its final stretch and, like many a Michael Bay movie, this technique manages to make its initial attempt at sociopathic jauntiness seem preferable. As with the movie’s big-budget cousins, this is all done in the name of fun. Morel invokes that other f-word throughout his technically-minded, intermittent DVD commentary. He watches his own film with mild amusement, dutifully pointing out the obvious John Woo homages, the work of a dedicated special effects crew, and the “cool scenes” (Morel is, admittedly, a competent action director and, unlike Bay, sounds less than bombastic about his modest skill set).
From Paris with Love is so fun-minded, in fact, that it lacks any tension, even in its serious bits; it can’t even pander correctly. Despite the European setting, Morel and Besson still make plenty of concessions to US audiences, saddling Jonathan Rhys Meyers with one of those ridiculous accents that result when a British actor has to flatten his voice into faux-American tones, then adding a surprise twist: Reece is supposed to be from Brooklyn, too! (Double twist: he hails from East New York). The movie’s scaled-down, budget version of terrorism doesn’t lend the movie grit so much as a puzzling sense that it may be illusory, as if the whole movie could turn out to be some kind of Charlie Wax long-con.
But the only con is the idea that ‘90s-style adult-oriented action trash (secretly aimed at the immature and the immature-at-heart) is easy to imitate. Besson remains better at designing Euro-Asian hybrids like The Transporter than the star-driven likes of Taken and Paris. Come back to us, Jerry Bruckheimer! Bring Nicolas Cage with you!