A film review by Craig J. Koban February 10, 2010


2010, R, 92 mins.


Charlie Wax: John Travolta / James Reese: Jonathan Rhys Meyers / Caroline: Kasia Smutniak / Ambassador: Richard Durden / Wong: Bing Yin

Directed by Pierre Morel / Written by Adi Hasak, based on a story by Luc Besson

I want to thank-you, John Travolta…for being cool again. 

After I sat through last year’s terminally dreadful and unfunny OLD DOGS I thought that the actor had hit his cinematic Waterloo.  Yes, he has made some stinkers in the past (WILD HOGS and BATTLEFIELD EARTH, to name a few), but there was very little in the way of succinctly describing how cringe inducing it was to witness Travolta in OLD DOGS engage in gags involving fecal matter and drug side effects, not to mention how inexcusably sad it was to see him over act to grossly unfunny, histrionic levels.  This was the same man that was in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, URBAN COWBOY, BLOW OUT, PULP FICTION, and GET SHORTY?  I cried foul, not to mention that I was wondering if the Travolta I saw in OLD DOGS was a fiendish impostor. 

Thankfully, I can confidently and joyously state that Travolta of old is back with a gun-tooting, f-bomb dispensing, hot tempered, and scenery chewing glee in FROM PARIS WITH LOVE, an action thriller that should not, in any way shape or form, be confused with one of the greatest James Bond films of all time, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE.  Regardless of the unfortunate comparisons that the title elicits, FORM PARIS WITH LOVE is a jubilant return to badass form for the 55-year-old actor, playing the role of a covert American spy that looks more like a freakish Hell’s Angels member than a government fixer.  With a ultra cool shaved head, an aggressively trimmed goatee, a flamboyantly pierced ear, and a furrowed brow and anti-social disposition that definitely precludes killing first and asking questions later, this is the guilty pleasure Travolta of old that lets it rip with reckless abandon.  It’s great to see the actor have fun and with a role and not slum within it, like he did with OLD DOGS.  Seeing Travolta mow his way through countless adversaries, swear up an ear-gasmic storm, and strut with a real bravado as only he knows how is an unapologetic scream.  It’s reasons like this why his best efforts in the past - playing ruthlessly loveable killers like in FACE/OFF, BROKEN ARROW, and last year’s underrated remakes of THE TAKING OF PEHLAM 123 – were so winning and engaging. 

In the film Travolta exudes cocky, antagonistic and fearless machismo as Charlie Wax, an American spy that, much like Mr. Wolf in PULP FICTION, is a master of fixing large problems, albeit of on a global, political level.  We see Wax and his story unfold through the eyes of a semi-dweeby intellectual government stooge named James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who works as the assistant to the American Ambassador in Paris.  He is not particularly field trained and spends most of his idle time guarding over the Ambassador and playing chess with him, but Reece desperately craves for the opportunity to become a fully-fledged field agent.  While he’s not day dreaming of a better future and watching out over his bosses’ needs, he leads a fairly quiet and quaint domestic life with his attractive fiancé, Caroline (the smolderingly fetching Polish-born newcomer, Kasia Smutniak).  His day job and home life are perfectly…normal. 

Well, that is until the Ambassador gives Reece an assignment to partner up with and drive around Wax, whom has just recently arrived in Paris on an secret and mysterious assignment.  At first, Reece is as energetic and happy as a school boy with the proposition of being teamed up with a big league spy, thinking that this is his meal ticket into a life of high stakes espionage that he has been wanting.  His hopes and enthusiasm are very quickly curtailed within his first few hours working with Wax, who is a ferociously foul-mouthed, immoral, and degenerately violent SOB that seems to take great relish in breaking whatever laws are in the book to get the job done and done fast.  Throughout much of their frequently vicious and bloody escapades through the streets of Paris, it becomes very clear that the renegade in Wax is a polar opposite to the suit-and-tie ethics of Reese, but when it becomes clear that Wax’s initial mission to stop some ruthless Asian drug dealers has more far ranging and deeply personal ties to Reece, these two mismatched operatives must work together in a race against the clock to stop a terrorist cell that hopes to enact a malicious plan that could prove fatal. 

The overall plot to FROM PARIS WITH LOVE is ridiculous and, at times, somewhat incomprehensible, which is not necessarily an overall hindrance.  The narrative is essentially empty-headed and flat and works on the preordained conventions and clichés of the buddy/action film (very rarely does it sway much from the genre’s formulas).  Yet, I am not sure that viewers will be heading into FROM PARIS WITH LOVE expecting intriguing themes and sobering messages; they are in the theatres, I suppose, to see a fast paced, moderately thrilling, and viscerally engaging action film, and that’s where it works well.  Attempts and creating any type of palpable realism in the film is never in the cards here: there are times when Travolta’s Wax – who comes across as a superhumanly dexterous and insanely proficient killer – leaves a body count in his wake that is absurdly comical.  It’s really the mayhem that the characters finds themselves in and how they find preposterously inventive ways to get out of it that makes films like this tick with a testosterone-induced lunacy, and for that FROM PARIS WITH LOVE never apologizes for its aims. 

Again, it is Travolta’s cackling madman of a covert spy that is the hypnotic glue that keeps this whole enterprise afloat, and the freakish charm he brings to the proceedings is shamelessly infectious.  I guess it comes as no surprise that Jonathan Rhys Meyers comes off as a bit flat and inconsequential while paired next to Travolta’s motor-mouthed sociopath, which may or may not have been the point with his performance.  Rhys Meyers is adequate playing his government lackey with aspirations of a grander life, but he seems to be delegated to second fiddle status when sharing the screen with Travolta.  There’s also a plot twist involving a key character that, if you pay even mild attention to the story early on, you can foresee with relative ease.   

The film has other issues as well, aside from its lame title, it’s clichéd plot on auto-pilot, and the puppet-like nature of Rhys Meyers’ role: While there are some very decent attempts at macabre hilarity (like a gruesome moment involving a spiral staircase in which bodies begin to slam and fall down into it from Wax’s maniacal killing spree from a higher level and a later scene involving a cell phone, two speeding cars on a freeway, and Wax hanging out the window of one with a bazooka), there are other gags that prove more distracting than funny.  There is a somewhat surprising PULP FICTION reference (hint: watch for Wax’s favourite midnight snack) that feels really, really forced: it makes viewers recall a far better film that Travolta was in instead of keeping us grounded in the world of the film he currently occupies.  Also, for a film shot in Paris, the city has never looked so wholeheartedly grungy and slimy: this is not a city of love that I would ever want to visit. 

Yet, these are nitpicks in an otherwise insidiously goofy and fun film.  FROM PARIS WITH LOVE was provided by director Pierre Morel and writer Luc Besson, the former who previously made the impressively action-packed DISTRICT 13 in 2004 and followed that up with last year’s surprise Liam Neeson hit TAKEN, which had the actor playing a father going ballistic on the European scum that has kidnapped his teenage daughter into slavery.  Besson as of late has become a provocateur of easily digestible and entertaining fast-food action cinema by creating the TRANSPORTER film series that fused together incredulously stylized action with a vengefully determined anti-hero in a plot that, when all was said and done, was a tertiary element to film’s overall tone.  Morel and Besson once again prove their slick expertise when it comes to exploitation trash (or, should it be called "Euro trash"?) cinema: FROM PARIS WITH LOVE never professes to reinvent the modern action film milieu.  Instead, like a big, greasy, and inviting Royale With Cheese, the film is nutritionally inert, but tasty and wickedly digestible.  You’ll leave the theatre either with a groan of contempt or a sly grin of reverence for it...count me in the latter category.  

Oh...and yes...Travolta is cool again.  

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