‘From Paris With Love’: Luc warm

February 2, 2010

Luc Besson is a movie-making maniac, an action auteur whose signature is all over the films he produces and writes, though the ones he directs haven’t measured up since “The Professional,” which is now 16 years ago.


Part Peckinpah, part Hong Kong, the movies Besson creates – including Pierre Morel’s “From Paris With Love,” which he produced and wrote the story for (and, also this week, “District 13: Ultimatum”) – are kinetic juggernauts, as carefully plotted with action beats as any of Jerry Bruckheimer’s or Joel Silver’s films, but with more wit and adrenaline. There’s no pretense or wasted motion in Besson’s films, and that includes little time spent trying to force sense into the script.


Rather, Besson’s films are like elaborate wind-up toys that seldom rest. You crank them up, turn them loose and get out of the way. Perhaps the metaphor should be a Roman candle: sparking and exploding, always with one more little ball of fire at the end than you expect.


Morel obviously studied at the Besson school. In “From Paris” as in his previous Besson-mentored efforts, “District B13” and “Taken,” he displays no real style of his own. His tropes are Besson’s tropes, his carefree, breathless style is Besson’s. The action flies by, with little time to make sense or do much more than assault the eyeball and tickle the pleasure center (make that the male pleasure center, which is so easily stimulated by explosions and automatic-weapon fire).


“From Paris,” from a story by Besson and a script by Adi Hasak, is built around Jonathan Rhys Meyers, as Reese, a smarty-pants attaché to the American ambassador to France. He’s totally organized, speaks several languages, regularly trounces his boss at chess, has a gorgeous French girlfriend – and secretly dreams of being a secret agent.


He occasionally gets the chance to help out the CIA (we assume), which calls him from time to time to do menial tasks like surreptitiously switch license plates on agency cars or plant a bug in the office of the French foreign minister (actually, a funny scene). Then one night, as his girlfriend is cooking him dinner, he gets a real assignment: as partner to a visiting undercover op named Charlie Wax (Travolta).


Think of the team as Big John and Little Jon. Travolta, looking bulky for a guy whose stunt doubles pull off such athletic feats, has a clean-shaven dome, an earring, a dark goatee and wears a leather jacket with a khafiya wrapped around his neck. Part bad-ass, part hipster and all id, he’s the guy who acts without having to think about it, teamed with the nerd who overthinks every action.


In the Hollywood version of this film, the script would have made Reese even more of a nerd and the Reese-Wax team more of an odd couple. There would have been significantly more banter between them and a lot more ineptness to the Reese character.


But Morel and Hasak don’t have time for anything resembling character development. “From Paris” is too headlong in its pacing to develop the comedy, beyond Wax’s motormouth jive. Indeed, it’s in too much of a hurry to even try to make sense of its plot.


Instead, it turns Wax loose on the bad guys of Paris and expects us to believe that he knows who, what and where to go as he unravels a plot that starts as the hunt for a cocaine ring and eventually turns into a scramble to foil a suicide bomber. I’m not spoiling anything by saying that, since the line “There’s a suicide bomber in the embassy” is the centerpiece of the TV commercials for the film.


Reese is along for the ride, mouth agape at Wax’s bull-in-the-china-shop approach. Indeed, Wax is like Jack Bauer on pep pills, his every instinct and bit of intel perfectly attuned to what to do next. The eventual reversal is not particularly surprising; indeed, there seems to be one reversal too few, for how clever the film seems to think it is. The action barely pauses – and when it does, the talk is hardly memorable.


But talk is cheap; fireballs coming out of exploding SUVs are not. And, after every implausible shoot-out, you have Rhys Meyers dithering about the moral toll, while Travolta grins like a madman who’s just been given a daypass from the asylum, along with a supply of automatic weapons. That, truly, is the extent of the character.


Silly and inconsequential? Without a doubt: No one will confuse “From Paris With Love” for a film with a working brain. But as mindlessly violent entertainment goes, it’s not hard to swallow – and it slides out of the memory almost as fast as it enters.


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