Wednesday, June 16, 2010

From Paris With Love

John Travolta has been nominated for two Oscars for Best Actor; these nominations accompanied his biggest successes, Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction.  I mention this because I appreciate Travolta in those movies.  At his best, Travolta exudes a casual cool that makes even a disco movie fun to watch.  I also mention this because it is hard to recognize that talent in most of his movies.  Travolta has a tendency to split his acting chops; either he is trying too hard to be serious, or he chews on scenery like a bad dog when he is trying to play a bad-ass.  From Paris With Love is definitely one of the latter occasions, and spraying him with water won't help.

James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is the personal aide to the US Ambassador in France, but he is secretly a low-level gopher for the CIA.  After several menial jobs, he is given a serious one; he is to help Charlie Wax (John Travolta) with whatever his mission is.  The mission never really gets much clearer than that, I'm afraid.  This is partly due to a poor script, and partly because Wax tends to lie to Reece.  At first, it appears to be a politically motivated series of drug busts, but Wax later claims that it has everything to do with terrorists.  I'm sure many terrorists get their money from drugs, but I doubt that the Asian mobs have many dealings with Islamic terrorists.  It assumes a level of cooperation between secretive brotherhoods that I find unlikely at best and insulting to my intelligence at worst.  Reece doesn't do a whole lot except react to Wax's bad-assery.  There are many instances of this, as Wax kills about thirty people in this movie, without pondering repercussions or worrying about innocents.  Wax isn't really a good guy so much as he is a weapon that has been sicced on his enemies.  As the movie progresses, Reece becomes more involved in the action and more confident in his life-or-death choices.  Eventually, he follows his own instincts instead of Wax's, and is proved right; that means that he is the only person between a group of people and death by terrorists.

If the story sounds vaguely familiar, it should.  This is just another slight tweak on the traditional buddy cop flick formula; as best exemplified in Lethal Weapon, there is one crazy-dangerous guy and one by-the-book type, only here the by-the-books type is also completely inexperienced.  Changing just that small experiential dynamic hurts this movie a lot.  Reece is relegated to doing next to nothing but complain for about an hour of the movie, while Wax does his thing.  If they had similar levels of experience (although, doesn't the boring cop usually have more experience?), then Reece could justify arguing with Wax, but he just keeps taking the craziness with a passivity that is similar to fraternity hazing.  Reece may not like what Wax is doing to/with him, but he's got to deal with it or else he'll never be part of the club.  This also has the side effect of making Wax's decisions seem like the only correct decisions.  There is a brief scene involving the French police and a bomb that tries to balance that a little, but it is nowhere near effective enough.

It's sad that this movie came from such excellent action movie stock.  Luc Besson is a great action movie writer, with credits ranging from Leon: The Professional to The Transporter, to Taken, to the best French language action movie ever, District 13.  Director Pierre Morel has only two other movie credits, but they are the excellent District 13 and Taken.  Given that information, I would assume this movie would be completely awesome.

Instead, we end up with a fairly generic template and John Travolta overacting.  I'm not complaining about that, mind you.  I actually enjoyed a decent amount of Travolta in this film.  If you paired him up with a suitable villain, like a drugged up Nicholas Cage or a 1990s Gary Oldman role, this movie could be a guilty pleasure.  Instead, nobody tries to match Travolta's energy and the story ends up feeling limp.  A big part of this is the fault of Jonathan Rhys Meyers.  He underacts in a movie that has absolutely zero use for subtlety, and his character's cleverness fails to jibe with his character's naivety.  That is partially the writer's fault, but his acting is so distinct between his clever self and his over-his-head-in-trouble self that it just detracts from the film as a whole.

There is, not surprisingly, a lot of action in this movie.  Some of it looks pretty good, I'll admit.  Most of it apparently caters to Travolta's age and fitness level, though.  I'm almost 100% certain that he does not have more than three seconds of continuous action footage in this movie.  It's edited well and looks pretty good, but after a while I noticed that there were no establishing shots or zoom outs to show that the actors actually worked out for their roles.  That's not a huge problem for me, but it stands in stark contrast with the parcour-crazy Besson/Morel collaboration, District 13.  That may be an unfair comparison, but I am very surprised that the same creative team was involved in both.

The advertisements for this DVD claim that this is the "coolest Travolta since Pulp Fiction."  That's a blatant lie.  His character in From Paris... is clearly more derivative of his "Yeah, ain't it cool" character from Broken Arrow than his Jackrabbit Slims-loving character from Pulp Fiction.  The sad thing is that Travolta is by far the best thing about this movie, despite some pretty lame lines and less than legit action sequences.  The plot here is poor and unnecessarily convoluted (I didn't even bother discussing that mess), but Travolta is entertaining enough to make it watchable.

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