When we think of Paris and the movies, we think perhaps of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, of songs by Edith Piaf or Django Reinhardt. Not in From Paris With Love, though - however the title may fool us.
Director Pierre Morel's and producer-writer Luc Besson's hyperactive new thriller, with John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as two American CIA guys on a bloody rampage, gives us instead nonstop ultra-violence, Chinese coke dealers, Pakistani terrorists, gunfights in the bistros and rocket-launcher battles on the freeways.
Morel and Besson's last movie, the surprise worldwide smash hit Taken - which I thought was exciting but ridiculous - also presented Paris as if it were some mix of Dodge City, Beirut and Chicago in the Capone era, with hero Liam Neeson killing bad guys by the dozens. From Paris With Love piles up almost as big a body count. And it's a comedy! At least partly.
Morel's Paris is a testing ground for would-be CIA agent James Reese (Meyers, the Irish-born TV Elvis and Henry VIII in The Tudors), a chess-playing aide to the U.S. ambassador (Richard Durden), and Travolta's emergency driver/partner/butt-of-all-jokes. It's also a murderous arena for Travolta's character, Charlie Wax - a role that gives this movie most of its entertainment value, and that once more displays Travolta's gift for playing psychopaths.
Charlie is a muscular, if somewhat overweight, CIA troubleshooter in commando garb, with a black goatee, a chrome-dome bald pate, the acid gab of a very mean radio talk show host, a flair for firing off Uzis with both hands, and a seemingly insatiable appetite for drugs, hookers and bloodshed.
He's no Charles Boyer, and From Paris With Love is no romantic comedy. The main romance we see on screen isn't between wannabe hero James and his lithe, giggly French girlfriend, Caroline (Kasia Smutniak).
Nah. The movie's primo flirtation is between James and Charlie, who gives his younger buddy a bloody coming of age and a baptism in massacre. Soon, poor James is fully engaged as Charlie's chauffeur, forced to carry around a huge vase full of cocaine for what seems half the movie, and to watch bodies drop down a spiral staircase and bounce on the steps as Wax above whacks baddies and tosses them away.
Charlie Wax is a compelling, amusingly loony character. He even shares the famous preference of Travolta's Pulp Fiction guy Vincent Vega for that French McDonald's spécialité du maison, a Royale with Cheese. But considering the fact that, according to James, Charlie is averaging about a kill an hour on his brief stay, this friendship seems a really dangerous liaison.
Morel knows how to make a movie move. From Paris With Love flies by in a windstorm of quick-slick street shots and rat-a-tat cutting. But, like Taken, it'll make you feel took if you mull over the plot. And the movie's ending, with its perverse reverse echoes of Casablanca, is a little queasy-making. It doesn't look like the beginning of a beautiful friendship to me. Unless James really loves Royales with Cheese.