[5 February 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The John Travolta we are introduced to at the beginning of the Pierre Morel’s latest Looney Tunes action effort, From Paris With Love, is the antithesis of everything the actor stands for in reality. Charlie Wax is brash, outrageous, in your face and controversial, unafraid of danger while welcoming confrontation at every step of the special ops process. He’s not so much as superspy as a bald, Bacchanalian superman. It’s fun to see the sworn Scientologist with the almost always easygoing persona break out a little, dropping the formality and fame façade to show he can have an ass-kicking good time like everyone else. Too bad then that Paris can’t provide him with a setting, situation, or sidekick to match.
In fact, supposed-to-be-retired scenarist Luc Besson (who also acts as producer here) is functioning in full blown French hip-hop Scarface mode - a storytelling style he seems stuck on as of late. The main plotpoint, which sees Travolta and his weak-willed wannabe wingman James Reece (the Tudor’s Jonathan Rhys Meyers) digging deep into the local cocaine trade is like a Snoop Dogg video without the urban street cred. It’s like John Woo woke up one day and decided to restage New Jack City with white people along the Champs Elysees. Not that we really mind the redundancy. Travolta’s Wax brings so much joy to his robotic roid rage beatdowns that we cheer despite ourselves.
But things can’t stay in the overeager operative’s hands forever, and when the terrorism angle to the third act kicks in, From Paris With Love simply derails. The “twist” is obvious, born out of an easy pickings/usual suspects/who’s left in the cast conceit. We know the suicide bomber’s not someone in the American Embassy (where Reece works as an ambassador’s assistant). We don’t spend enough time with anyone there to pick up the scent of red herring. Similarly, all the rogues that Wax runs into usually wind up dead or so mortally wounded that they’d be useless as a C4 carrying martyr. They can barely breath, let alone make a deadly political statement. That just leaves a couple of blatant marks, moviemaking givens that are supposed to “shock” us when uncovered (one by a bullet to the brain) but only end up making us sigh.
Oddly enough, Morel also underperforms here. With Taken, as well as his work on the amazing District B13, he was all about the action. Scenes moved with lightning speed and everything was driven to a particular end. Granted, he had parkour and Liam Nesson to work with before, but Travolta seems up for the ride. He’s the perfect steely man - slightly sloppy but with everything so preplanned and calculated that he will never once be undermined or defeated. Even when his stunt double is hanging out of a sedan window, the vehicle careening down a crowded highway at breakneck pacing, we rally around the ruse. We want Wax to succeed and therefore feel invested in the outcome. But the minute the story shifts over to the bombing, our brain blurs. We want more anarchic machismo and tripwire testosterone. All this Jihad cabal right-under-our-noses nonsense no longer matters.
Maybe it’s Rhys Meyers who ruins things. He’s playing American, which means he has to cover up his British failings, and he struggles with it - a lot. Luckily, Paris makes him a languages expert, dropping the clipped US vernacular on occasion to go German, Chinese, or French on his suspects. But he is the worst kind of passive participant, a drone desperate to make an impression but seemingly unable to build up the bravado to do so. As a result, when the plot hands him the whole Wax-less ball at the end, we don’t by the hero moves for a minute. In a role that is horribly underwritten and more or less meaningless, Rhys Meyers manages to add an additional level of dullness. He’s not a viable contrast to the always-on Travolta.
Oh, and did we mention that this was a comedy - or at the very least, a lame attempted reinvention of the equally uneven ‘buddy’ pics of the ‘80s? The level of wit remains squarely on the side of curse words, sexism, and occasional lapses into sprawl and slapstick. We are even supposed to snicker every time Wax openly marvels at the wussed-out Reece throwing a punch. The star sells it, but the script can’t give him enough to maintain it. And since we are stuck with both of these men through most of the movie (there is no subplot supporting talent to help them out) the laughs have to be plentiful and pretty substantial. They aren’t.
It all ends up feeling very convoluted and more than a little trivial. The threat is never real (since we never see anything remotely resembling danger to our duo) and the payoff is all personal, not professional. We want revenge, not routine. Clearly, Besson et al are hoping for some big box office, since sequel-itis infects like last scene like cinematic gangrene. You can almost here the studio salivating over discovering this jovial, junk food equivalent to the recently remastered James Bond franchise. Travolta would make a marvelous amiable anti-hero, and the way From Paris With Love portrays him, he could be Harry Tasker without the family backstory or Austrian accent.
Action movies are already their own worse enemy. They tend to rely on what’s recent, from shaky-cam insularity to CG derring-do. At least From Paris With Love more or less lets a human being carry most of the mayhem - and Travolta truly runs with it. Without him, the movie would be a royal waste of time. With him, it’s redeemed, if only super-spy-ficially.