Friday, February 5, 2010

From Paris with Love: Frantic French free-for-all

From Paris with Love (2010) • View trailer for From Paris with Love
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, profanity and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.5.10
Buy DVD: From Paris with Love• Buy Blu-Ray: From Paris with Love [Blu-ray]

Live-action cartoons rarely are worth writing home about, but the better ones can be fun to watch.

And when it comes to crazed action thrillers, few filmmakers deliver the goods better than Luc Besson, the French writer/director/producer who seems responsible, at times, for every third film released in France. At his best, Besson has brought us La Femme Nikita, The Professional and The Transporter series, and even lesser efforts  Danny the Dog and Angel-A  are intriguing misfires.
Impulsive black-ops agent Charlie Wax (John Travolta, left) thinks nothing of
breaking into an apartment in order to spy on somebody across the street, an
act of questionable legality that draws reproach from neophyte partner James
Reese (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Charlie's response to James' raised eyebrow is
always the same: a long-suffering glance and an unspoken "Do you want to
get the job done, or not?"

From Paris with Love is a hoot 'n' a holler, not to mention a triumph of clever directing (Pierre Morel, strutting the same stuff he gave us in Taken) and slick editing (Frederic Thoraval). It couldn't have been easy to turn paunchy, 55-year-old John Travolta into a credible action hero, and yet his Charlie Wax (love the name!) brings down the bad guys with the panache of an actor 20 years his junior.

Besson takes credit solely for story here  scripting chores having been handed to Adi Hasak  but all the usual elements are firmly in place: oversized weapons, laughably overblown gouts of gunfire, plenty of male bonding and a tendency to treat women as appendages.

Despite being preposterous beyond words, though, Morel moves things along at a pace slick enough to minimize questions, while Travolta and co-star Jonathan Rhys Meyers keep us amply entertained every step of the way.

Folks seeking a rip-snortin' way to spend 95 minutes on a Friday evening couldn't do better.

Rhys Meyers plays James Reese, personal aide to the U.S. Ambassador in France (Richard Durden). James is a capable young man who has earned the respect of his boss, with whom he frequently plays chess. James also has a gorgeous, loving girlfriend (Kasia Smutniak, as Caroline) who designs clothes and dotes on him, and an enviable Parisian apartment with a rooftop perfectly suited to dining beneath the stars.

More than anything else, though, James likes his side job as a low-level operative for the CIA: a bit of moonlighting that he hopes, one day, to transform into a career as a bona-fide agent. This desire takes an unusual turn when his never-seen handler sends him on an urgent mission to collect somebody at Customs.

Enter Travolta's Charlie Wax, introduced as he verbally abuses the French Customs agents who are refusing to allow a bag of canned sports drinks into the country.

James cleverly sidesteps that problem, but then it's Devil-take-the-hindmost as the impulsive, apparently uncontrollable Charlie drags them to a Chinese restaurant that's actually a cover for a high-volume cocaine operation. The subsequent explosion of gunfire is merely a prelude to a white-knuckle shooting spree through the Parisian underworld, with James doing his best to stay alive during a 48-hour "mission" that ultimately involves a terrorist plot to disrupt a high-profile peace conference.

As the old saying goes, one should be careful what one wishes for, because one might get it.

And James really gets it.

The often silly action scenes are made more palatable by the mordant humor that characterizes the budding relationship between James and his hotheaded new friend. Charlie's advice, often delivered during the fury of gunfire, is always spot-on; James just can't bring himself to embrace such spontaneous behavior. Therein lies plenty of great one-liners.

An early running gag involves the cocaine-filled urn that James carefully protects, during several skirmishes; he believes it to be important evidence until Charlie decides on a more useful purpose.

Travolta chews up the scenery and spits out wood chips throughout, demonstrating once again the degree to which his star wattage can command the camera. Rhys Meyers makes the perfect do-gooder foil: definitely the best Mutt 'n' Jeff action flick pairing I've seen in awhile.

The stuntwork is the raison d'tre for such films, of course, but Hasak can be commended for paying attention to important little touches, as well. I like the fact that Ambassador Bennington trusts James implicitly, particularly during a climactic moment when it counts the most. We don't waste any time with one of those stupid "But you've got to believe me" scenes that dog lesser thrillers.

And there's a slick twist in this bouillabaisse of cross and double-cross: Bragging rights go to those who deduce it before that particular card is played.

From Paris with Love can't be called a great cinematic experience, but it's certainly fun: a guilty pleasure apt to bring far more pleasure than many of the other recent winter offerings. (The Book of Eli, Tooth Fairy, When in Rome, Legion, The Spy Next Door ... gaaah, the list is endless!)

I'll take Travolta and a bazooka over those any day.

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