Why do birds suddenly appear
Every time you are near?
— The Carpenters, “Close to You”
“Those cans will never enter France!” So declares a snippety airport security employee, determined to uphold the law and so, utterly annoying the American seated before him. Wide and imposing, Charlie Wax (John Travolta) is equally determined to break that law, as he means to leave the airport with his bag full of Red Bullish energy drinks, in cans. Just a few minutes into From Paris With Love, the confrontation escalates, Charlie stands and menaces. “Don’t get your panties up in a bunch,” he snarls. France owes the U.S. for help in two world wars, and Charlie means to collect the debt. The man in the uniform sputters and sways, utterly confused.
Of course, Charlie isn’t as dumb galooty as he appears. With his keffiyeh, bluster, and thick neck, he plays to his audience — and no, he doesn’t much care what the Parisian thinks. Instead, he means to impress the American sent to fetch him, the anxious, ambitious assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to France, James Reese (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). He’s been told that looking after Charlie for a couple of days is his ticket to Special Ops, and though it’s plain Reese is clever and quick, he also has no notion of what this next big step entails. Lucky him: Charlie fancies himself a tutor.
Reese’s ignorance and timidity, not to mention his alarming slowness on the uptake, suggest he may not be the best partner for Charlie’s purposes. But the veteran sees something worthy in the newbie, and spends long minutes explaining what he’s doing — his language, his guns, his mission. If you’re any faster than Reese, or if you’ve seen one of the hundreds of movies quite like this one, you know long before the kid does where he’s headed.
On its face, this doesn’t seem the most effective way to organize an action movie. But they you see, the action is mostly incidental. Certainly, it’s loud, fast, and sometimes uproarious, fast-cut and fragmented (employing lots of stunts experts), gesturing toward Charlie’s brilliance and incessant self-love, but not really about him either. Duly impressed by all the shooting and bone-breaking and coke-snorting (tediously, Reese’s adverse reaction — all wide angles and blurred frames — recalls Ethan Hawke’s efforts to keep it together in Denzel’s Monte Carlo), Reese does his best to keep up. Charlie’s hunting terrorists, scary-Arab types who leave the makings of their suicide vests on their kitchen tables, and Reese is excited.
He’s also distracted from his gorgeous, endlessly forgiving French girlfriend Caroline (Kasia Smutniak), a dressmaker whose pursuit of unusual fabrics leads her to the very ghetto where the boys are slamming through walls and blowing shit up. How odd, you might think, that she happens to arrive on the scene just in time to spot Reese through closing elevator doors, squeezed up against Charlie’s central-casting hooker. Now he has to explain himself, Reese worries, but just as he pulls out his cell phone to do so, he realizes his battery is low: oh dear!
Like most recent films from the Luc Besson producing machine, this one is filled with such silly asides, some possibly important for coming plot turns, most representing Reese’s ongoing sense of panic. His world is changing beneath his feet, and all he can do is watch (you know, like you). But because Reese is in need of life lessons — over whom to trust or doubt, save or kill — it’s not long before he gives himself over to the hectic pleasures of Charlie’s Way, careening through Paris streets in a stolen police car, shooting up Chinese restaurants, and dropping hapless opponents down long spiral stairwells (their bodies hurling past Reese on the stairs, banging off railings and slamming onto the floor far below).
It’s plain that Charlie likes the raid more than the results (“This place is dripping with intel,” he smirks after one assault, though what that might be is never revealed.) And it hardly matters where Reese’s education climaxes (that would be an Aid for Africa summit, where lots of people of color serve as potential victims and silent observers of still more frenetic violence). Neither does it matter that Reese eventually discovers he has completely misread his own life, and appears completely unsuited for Charlie’s sort of split-second decision-making. He is, in the end, deemed the super-operative’s ideal partner, when Charlie asserts that his fundamental moral sensibility — however misguided — is actually necessary to keep ruthless assassins like him “honest.”
At last, a point. Perhaps. Reese needs to stop thinking and start reacting. And he needs to accept that Charlie is the only proper object of his affection and loyalty, a man who loves to sing along with “Close to You” as much as he loves blasting terrorists to kingdom come. Theirs is a romance conjured in action-movie heaven — complete with a cute homage to Vincent Vega and a crane-out from their approximation of a final clinch.