Reviews

From Paris With Love

If you've seen one of the hundreds of movies like From Paris With Love, you know long before Reese does where he's headed.


From Paris With Love

Director: Pierre Morel
Cast: John Travolta, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Kasia Smutniak, Richard Durden
Rated: R
Studio: Lionsgate Films
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-02-05 (General release)
UK date: 2010-03-05 (General release)
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Trailer
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.

4

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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