Travolta is Terrific; 'Paris' is Just Passable

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)

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.


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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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