By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
While trying to figure what went into the making of a bad movie is a trifling pursuit at best, director Pierre Morel’s nearly awful “From Paris with Love” raises the question more than most. Like others of its ilk, how everything went so wrong is inevitably more interesting than the story. Add a name brand star to the mix and it ups the ante.
Here the central curiosity is John Travolta as Charlie Wax, CIA killer crazy man extraordinaire. Having come to Paris to wreak havoc whilst stopping terrorists from spoiling an important summit, for the plot’s purposes he has really arrived to mentor neophyte James Reece, his buttoned-down antithesis attached to the U.S. Embassy.
Call it a variation on “Training Day” (2001), wherein the unorthodox loose cannon abashes to no end his by-the-book junior partner. Jonathan Rhys Meyers as young Reece, the ambassador’s personal operative, is sent into a tizzy of disbelief. He’s been bucking for a promotion, but the trial by fire that ensues is not how he had planned to achieve it.
Heretofore he has acted as little more than a classified gofer, switching license plates in dim, subterranean parking lots and planting bugs in the ally’s inner sanctums. Save for regularly besting Ambassador Bennington (Richard Durden) at chess, his most intriguing activity has been an affaire de coeur with fashion designer Caroline (Kasia Smutniak).
Essentially, then, Travolta’s cloak-and-dagger dude is that big kid your mother didn’t want you to play with, and rightfully so. Thriving on danger, perennially laughing in Death’s face, his influence isn’t what’s going to get you into one of the Ivy League schools and a promising spot at Amalgamated Consolidated. He is Peter Pan with a gun.
While there are several actors who could give this bad boy fantasy a run for its money, few could top Mr. Travolta’s puckish zeal. Just as 007 has a license to kill, Mr. Kotter’s main Sweathog has a license to ham. He raises the bar for unashamed, over-the-top histrionics. Oh that the stars had been aligned more suitably for his operatic effort.
Still, all else pales in comparison. The tale is a bore, surprising only in that it doesn’t veer from predictability. And while Meyers’s novitiate is decently acted considering the inherent distraction, other portrayals are lacklustre. What is surprising is that Mr. Morel, who cut his filmic teeth as a cinematographer, has created such a drab looking product.
Surely there’s a better way to induce mood and suspense of the secret agent kind without relegating us to a continual squint. The ubiquitous shadows only inform that the film doesn’t have much to show us. If there’s a Paris under all those dark filters, then let’s at least get an appealing eyeful. It’s not like some great plot mystery will be upstaged.
Instead, the light afforded is mostly used in stroboscopic fashion to highlight Charlie Wax’s wholesale killing of bad guys. While at first astonished and caused to utter faint protest, Reece is harshly reprimanded by his assassinating partner: “You want to just change license plates the rest of your life?” Thus the quandary, to kill or not to kill?
It is answered when the axiom, kill or be killed, presents itself. And what do you know? Literally earning his red badge of courage when an evildoer’s blood splashes him in the face, it turns out the kid can kill with the best of ‘em. Nonetheless, he questions the good of it. “You’re alive and he’s dead,” comes Wax’s contribution to the pungent dialogue.
Hmm…maybe he even likes it a little bit. He has come of age, a realist, and a doer. In any case, his tutor is sure proud of him. Now firing from both barrels, full buddy film sensibilities are exuded. Thus it only follows that a woman might spoil what looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Charlie casts aspersions concerning Caroline.
Impossible! He had her fully checked out by the Agency. “You’ve just never been in love,” says Reece. Au contraire, Wax assures. Struck by Cupid’s arrows on several occasions, he proceeds to name the locales of said direct hits, explaining how in each instance it almost meant his demise. We are left to wonder if Caroline is a Mata Hari.
Otherwise, aside from trying to figure what compelled you to see this movie, the only thing left to ponder is why Mr. Travolta made it in the first place. It couldn’t be the script. While he doubtlessly had some fun with the role, his cynical Charlie Wax would affirm that “From Paris with Love” might more aptly be titled “From Paris with Money.”
“From Paris with Love,” rated R, is a Lionsgate release directed by Pierre Morel and stars John Travolta, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Kasia Smutniak. Running time: 92 minutes
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