Thursday, February 4, 2010

From Paris With Love

Pierre Morel's Taken was a surprise hit in 2008, and that film was actually a lot of fun. Watching a 56-year-old Liam Neeson kick ass in a role that was physically more suited for the likes of Jason Statham was immensely entertaining, and he brought a legitimacy to the character of "worried father" which made the film emotionally resonant as well.

So it stands to reason that I went into From Paris with Love expecting similar results: a solid action movie, some good one-liners, and - most importantly - a fun time at the movies. Unfortunately, Morel's follow-up film has none of these qualities. I don't like being negative, but I can't in good conscience recommend this movie to anyone.

From Paris with Love
Director: Pierre Morel
Starring: John Travolta, Jonathan Rhys Meyers

The story, another half-hearted concoction from the once-great Luc Besson, revolves around James Reese (Meyers), a low level CIA operative who finally gets his big chance to move up in the ranks. His new job: assist mega-agent Charlie Wax (Travolta), a leather-jacket-wearing rebel who miraculously and inexplicably stands in good graces with the bureaucracy despite his "shoot first, ask questions later" mentality. There's a plot to blow up the U.S. embassy in Paris, but these characters are so poorly realized that we almost don't care if it explodes or not. Wax blows through the film unscathed and undeterred, and when Reese says late in the movie,"You don't need me," and Wax replies,"Sure I do! Tell me we aren't a perfect match," we have a hard time buying this dynamic - Reese really doesn't contribute to Wax's plans in any significant way, and we spend half of the film's runtime wondering what Wax would be doing if he were alone on this mission.

Perhaps that last statement gives the character too much credit. The only reason we wonder anything about Wax is because he's the only remotely interesting character in the movie. I want to make clear, however, that "interesting character" and "compelling character" are not the same thing in this case. Travolta desperately tries to imbue Wax with a loose-cannon sensibility, but as said in Super Troopers, "desperation is a stinky cologne." I'm a fan of larger-than-life personas and over the top acting, but it must be done in moderation before it starts to feel silly. Here, Travolta goes so over the top that Stallone's Lincoln Hawk would be proud. While Denzel Washington was believable in an equally physical role in The Book of Eli, Travolta clearly isn't made for this kind of action film anymore. Try as they might, the filmmakers cannot convince me that the slightly tubby Travolta can take down six armed thugs in an alleyway single handed. This very aspect was what made Taken so fun to watch, but it is From Paris with Love's Achilles heel.

For films like these, there seems to be an unspoken contract between director and audience. The director provides spectacular action amid a loosely-conceived plot, and the audience forgives the more practical elements of the story after they are rewarded with the aforementioned action sequences. The problem is, Pierre Morel didn't live up to his end of the bargain. Don't get me wrong, he's done it before - I wish this film was more like Morel's own District B-13 - but this time, the action is lackluster and predictable. In one scene lifted straight out of Wanted, Charlie Wax runs in slow motion through a dummy factory, blindly shooting guns from both extended arms. I think one of the few rules of an action film is "don't let the audience get bored." I guess Morel didn't get the memo. Sure, the occasional car blows up or person gets shot, but these things don't matter when we don't care about the characters.

I feel like I'm beating a dead horse here, but the dialogue is beyond terrible in this movie. Cliched one-liners can be fun depending on context, but Travolta's foul-mouthed special agent reminded me more of someone out of Crank 2: High Voltage - he seemed to say certain things solely to offend people. Aside from unforgivable rom-com lines between Rhys Meyers and his fiance, there is a forehead-slapping callback to Travolta's famous "royale with cheese" speech from Pulp Fiction. Since I feel the need to say something positive about this movie, there is one particular line that I was a fan of: after Wax has killed a slew of Asian drug dealers, Reese asks "how many more of them do you think there are?" Wax comically responds, "According to the last census? About a billion."

Sadly, that cheap joke was the peak of enjoyment for this film. I sincerely hope Travolta learns a lesson from this and returns to making decent films again - I don't think he's beyond redemption, and I truly hope he can make yet another comeback after his recent downfall. (For more on that, check out this solid piece by Jen Yamato over at Cinematical.) From Paris with Love was a disaster from the title onward. If you've seen the trailer, you've already experienced a better film in your head than the one we're actually given. I'll be interested to see if Morel's upcoming adaptation of Dune will feature any dinner scenes, because if Taken and From Paris with Love are any indication, if nothing else we're in for a bloody meal.