- From Paris With Love
Directed by Pierre Morel
Screenplay by Adi Hasak
Based on a story by Luc Besson
Charlie Wax – John Travolta
James Reese – Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Caroline – Kasia Smutniak
Ambassador Bennington – Richard Durden
Wong – Bing Yin
Nichole – Amber Rose Revah
Foreign Minister – Eric Godon
Rashid – Chems Eddine Dahmani
Director Pierre Morel’s Disappointing Follow-up to Taken
Somewhere in From Paris with Love, hidden beneath the mediocre action sequences, the meaningless plot and the eerily-familiar “unhinged” performance from John Travolta, lies a really neat idea for an action movie, in which a “realistic” secret agent, whose job consists mostly of planting bugs and maintaining his cover as a personal assistant at the U.S. embassy in Paris, teams up with the kind of secret agent only found in movies, whose job consists mostly of killing dozens of people a day and getting laid. To quote The Simpsons, “They’re the original Odd Couple!” Sadly, Pierre Morel’s follow-up to Taken, one of the best action movies of the last decade, never capitalizes on its high concept, resulting in one of the most disappointing films in recent memory not because it’s bad, although it’s certainly not very good, but because the obvious potential for an entertaining “high octane thrill ride” is squandered at practically every opportunity.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers, giving the best performance of the film, plays agent James Reece, a master chess player and linguist who languishes in espionage banality when he’s not lounging in the arms of his beautiful fiancé Carolina (Kasia Smutniak). He dreams of high profile assignments and finally gets his opportunity when unorthodox special agent Charlie Wax (John Travolta) comes to Paris with a secret mission. Reece is ordered to accompany Wax and follow his orders to the letter, but it quickly becomes clear that when it comes to Wax, “unorthodox” may be synonymous with “certifiably insane.” Is Wax a rogue agent or is there a method to his madness? Will Reece follow Wax’s crazy orders and sacrifice his principles (and possibly the love of his life), or will he jeopardize his career by trusting his conservative instincts? Will these two polar opposites rub off on each other and evolve into a perfect pair of crimefighters, or end up as mortal enemies?
This is the conflict that From Paris with Love establishes at the start of the film, and it’s a dramatically sound one. For a brief period the action on-screen sets off sparks, even though it never fully ignites, because it follows this set-up to its logical conclusions. The film shifts admirably from Reece’s calculated world of leisurely-paced moderation in the first act to the whipcrack outlandishness of Wax’s hyper-edited shoot-‘em-up lifestyle over the course of one of the best scenes in the film, in which the protagonists meet and their contrasting methodologies are perfectly illustrated. But the conflict between our two heroes – the very foundation on which the film is based – swiftly dies as we almost immediately discover that there is no conflict at all. Wax is right and Reece is mostly wrong, which nullifies most of the dramatic tension From Paris with Love has to offer, leaving instead only a meaningless MacGuffin of a plotline involving drug dealers and terrorists that the filmmakers deem so unimportant that they drown out the exposition with a drug-induced sonic stupor. But by the end of the film, that tedious plotline is all that From Paris with Love has to offer, and the final act ultimately sets its heroes off on two separate missions because that’s what the plot demands, even though keeping them apart is the antithesis of the film’s raison d’être.
So with all of the conflict neutralized the audience is left with a series of set pieces, some admittedly more entertaining than others but none terribly thrilling, with only a single telegraphed plot twist to its credit and a climax which does, in the interest of fairness, resolve itself somewhat unexpectedly. Suffice it to say, From Paris with Love does not constitute one of the finer producing efforts of Luc Besson, who over the past decade or so has made himself into a patron saint of action cinema, consistently releasing exciting, stylish and highly entertaining B-movies like the charmingly brain dead Transporter series (although the third one is kind of junk), and occasionally even meaningful dramatic action films like Unleashed and Taken. Alas, From Paris with Love lacks the razor sharp focus of these earlier efforts and never fully commits to its compelling premise. Maybe the comedic aspect of the screenplay got away from director Pierre Morel, who despite brilliant work directing Taken (and charmingly “biz-onkers” work, if you will forgive the technical jargon, directing District B13) has never really demonstrated a deft hand at levity. The film is filled with more ideas for comedy than successful jokes, and the action, normally one of Morel’s strong suits, appears to have been hindered by the kind of lightning fast editing necessary to turn an aging John Travolta into a plausible badass.
Structural difficulties, failed attempts at levity and below-par action sequences would be bad enough, but sadly From Paris with Love also has a noticeably sexist undercurrent to its detriment, giving what would normally have simply been a bland meal a genuinely unpleasant aftertaste. Besson makes movies for manly, manly men, this can be certain, but by the end of From Paris with Love the few women who make it out of the movie alive are depicted as humorless “bitches” who are more interested in their own convenience than in the affairs of more worldly men, and the women who don’t make it out alive are, as one might imagine, treated even with even less respect. Frankly, Morel is better than this. Although women always have a rough time in his movies, the female protagonist of District B13 was so strong and independent that it took copious amounts of narcotics – and an armed guard – to overpower her, and although the women in Taken are by-and-large victimized, this of course was the entire point of the film: the horrors of female sexual slavery. Another Travolta vehicle, Swordfish, was arguably the most misogynist mainstream film of the 2000’s, and as mainstream entertainment it’s especially important to call movies like these out on their troubling thematic undercurrents because the genre encourages the audience to mindlessly accept the events onscreen.
So From Paris with Love is problematic at best, providing moments of entertainment interrupted by long stretches of mediocrity, failed dramatic opportunities and unpleasant subtext, and all from filmmakers and actors who have proved themselves superior to this kind of material. In a way it is almost fascinating to watch a film with such obvious flaws, if only to ponder how nobody caught them at some point during production. If this is the kind of film Luc Besson and Pierre Morel are going to give us “with love,” then it may be time to go back to having good old-fashioned cinematic “meaningless sex” instead. The Transporter 4, anyone…?