If you’re going to blatantly rip off the title of a classic James Bond film, your action movie had better be good. Or, if not good, as least halfway entertaining and stylish. And From Paris with Love does start promisingly. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays dashing James, an aide to the American Ambassador in France – by day. He’s also moonlighting as a low-ranking CIA spook.
In between fielding mysterious calls from his handler, he beats his boss in a game of chess. Highbrow. Perhaps the chess match is a symbol of the story to come – classy and thoughtful, with unpredictable moves from two quality opponents. But if this opening sequence is meant to presage the movie, the filmmakers would have been better off having the characters mud-wrestle, because this buddy-based action flick is messy, monotonous and unseemly.
Straight-laced James is paired with John Travolta’s Charlie Wax, a trigger-happy, wise-cracking loose-cannon CIA veteran. (A by-the-book newbie and a maverick agent forced to work together! Of all things!) Wax is in town to single-handedly solve Paris’s immigration problem – at least, this is what the viewer might assume from the way he cruises the city, killing every brown-skinned person he encounters. Time after time Wax (so-named to facilitate an unfunny “Wax on, wax off” Karate Kid gag) eliminates gangs of vicious non-whites, who – despite far outnumbering the CIA duo – considerately only attack two at a time, allowing themselves to be effortlessly immobilized.
What starts off as a standard drugs operation suddenly – the narrative doesn’t bother us with the details – becomes a planned suicide bombing. But when the trail of the bombers leads closer to home for our gun-toting homeboys, things get interesting. Or at least they are supposed to.
From Paris with Love comes from the bloodthirsty camera of French director Pierre Morel, who seems to enjoy having CIA men shooting up immigrants in his capital city, as he did the same thing two years ago in Taken, another violent slice of cinematic cynicism. This is not quite as dark, thanks mainly to a lively turn from John Travolta, who seems to be laboring under the impression that he’s still filming The Taking of Pelham 123: he’s now the government agent, rather than the terrorist, but otherwise the performance is identical.
Travolta’s role is one of three elements that keep the film from becoming really dire. The second is the action sequences, which are competently handled even if largely bereft of tension from being rolled out one of top of the other with no breathing space in between. The third is the handful of funny lines. But these are scant consolation for enduring this mess. The script reads like it was written by a school competition winner. Meyers is wooden, and often looks (understandably) embarrassed to be saying the lines.
And the whole espionage treatment is passé. When its superior namesake From Russia with Love came out in the 60s, viewers were open to believing that spooks lived lives of urbane glamour and excitement, dispatching enemies of the state with witty one-liners before pre-dinner cocktails and bedding attractive women with ridiculous names. But in this post-Bourne, Daniel Craig as Bond era, this just looks outdated and naff. Spies are often damaged people and much of their work is tedious. And they don’t shoot a hundred hardened criminals without suffering so much as a scratch.
A knowing reference to Pulp Fiction was doubtless thrown in as a post-modern in-joke. All it did was remind the audience how guns, gangsters and John Travolta can be combined to far better effect that this sub-B movie, sub-Bourne silliness.
Director: Pierre Morel
Starring: John Travolta, Jonathan Rhys Meyers
On at: Hollywood Multiplex, Movieplex Cinema