If you’re interested in seeing John Travolta do his manic routine again (see “Face/Off”), here’s your opportunity. But you’ll have to settle for watching him blow his stack in a buddy-spy thriller that exudes Euro-trashiness from first frame to last.
“From Paris With Love” is yet another of the seemingly endless brainchildren of French producer Luc Besson, who masterminded the “Transporter” flicks and last year gave us the inexplicably successful “Taken,” a junky father’s revenge action yarn that not even the presence of Liam Neeson—or continental locations—could salvage. But it became a boxoffice smash nonetheless, so maybe this actioner, similarly high-octane and equally low on brains, will also have popular success.
Travolta, with head shaved and some of the hair transferred to his chin, plays CIA master operative Charlie Wax, a hot-tempered bundle of energy who shows up in Paris, where James Reese (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), an ambassadorial assistant who’s been doing small-time jobs for the agency in hopes of graduating to full spy status, is assigned to partner the take-no-prisoners visitor. Leaving his sultry girlfriend Caroline (Kasia Smutniak) behind with the romantic dinner she’s prepared for him, Reese speeds off to the airport to free Wax from a customs holding room (he refuses to surrender his cans of energy drink) and then is impressed into serving as his amazed partner.
The young man’s amazement arrives from Wax’s propensity for shooting first—vast numbers of bullets into scores of bad-guys, all of whose return fire invariably misses—without bothering to ask questions later. Their journey begins at a Chinese restaurant whose ceiling is full of cocaine, and continues to a drug kingpin’s lair in what appears to be a mannequin factory, then to a run-down high-rise project where the drugs are being packaged, then to a brothel and a dinner (!) with Caroline and a friend of hers, and finally to a big embassy do to which a delegation of Americans are speeding from the airport. The latter involves a terrorist plot, though the precise rationale behind it is murky—though it’s made clear that some evil, Arab-looking foreign types are the culprits. (The same kind of crude stereotyping was at the center of “Taken.”)
Equally murky is the connection across the chain of gun battles, fistfights and general mayhem that Wax drags Reese along in. Presumably one’s supposed to understand how the duo gets from one point to another—it’s always the result of Wax’s combination of crisp understanding and no-nonsense action—but it really doesn’t matter, because the only purpose to “From Paris With Love” (a title that only emphasizes what a rip-off of the Ian Fleming formula the picture represents) is to provide an excuse for Travolta to strike snarky poses, make way for stuntmen to perform all sorts of dangerous bits in his character’s clothes, rattle off not-so-bon mots machine-gun style, and blast away with abandon. (One supposedly surprising moment, when he shoots a person without warning, is essentially a replay of a trick Besson’s used before, so be forewarned. The predictability factor is increased by the fact that a character who appears early on, and is revealed as a villain only much later, is obviously guilty from first sight.) Try as he might, Travolta doesn’t seem suited to this sort of role, and a self-referential gag going back to “Pulp Fiction” only emphasizes the cheapness afoot.
As for Rhys Meyers, he makes a pretty pallid partner for Travolta’s old-timer. The movie is essentially Reese’s journey from novice to accomplished operative, but that’s announced rather than illustrated, and is totally unconvincing. Nobody else makes much of an impression, that Smutniak looks good. (If she intends to continue acting, though, she might consider adopting a stage name—one that wouldn’t suggest she really belongs in “adult” movies.)
Director Pierre Morel (“Taken”) and editor Frederic Thoraval certainly keep things moving at a breathless pace, and cinematographer Michel Abramowicz manages to follow all the razzmatazz pretty surely, while David Buckley’s booming score leaves no cliché unused. But despite the romance between Reese and Caroline (and maybe Charlie and James), there’s really no love in this movie. Unless it’s love of money from viewer’s wallets.