There’s no doubt about it: big, unreconstructed, unapologetic action movies are back in vogue. As cinemas brace themselves for The Expendables, and with Drive Angry and Machete on the way, multplexes are once again in thrall to the kind of pumped-up, testosterone fuelled violence we haven’t seen since the 1980s. For Den Of Geek, this is a very, very good thing.
Against this macho backdrop, we have From Paris With Love, director Pierre Morel’s follow up to 2008’s surprisingly successful Taken. While that movie had the kind of identikit plot you’d expect from a straight-to-video Chuck Norris actioner – an ex-CIA agent kills half of France in an attempt to prevent his daughter from being sold as a sex slave – its taut, efficient direction, as well as a hard-as-nails central performance from Liam Leeson, made it a far more effective movie than its premise suggested.
Which brings us to From Paris With Love, which is once again produced and co-written by action mogul Luc Besson, and once again set in the city of romance.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars as James, an improbably clean-cut US aide with a perfect suit, a perfect girlfriend and a perfect trendy Paris flat. In his spare time, James carries out low level donkey work for the CIA, which includes such exciting errands as switching car number plates and sticking audio surveillance devices to the undersides of desks, and harbours secret dreams of becoming a 007-style secret agent.
Before long, however, James’s buttoned-up life comes undone, as Wax (John Travolta, shaven-headed and notably overweight), a walking, shouting embodiment of chaos, steps off a plane and begins offing people seemingly at random. A US special agent apparently detailed to bust open a Chinese drug-running organisation, Wax drags James from one outlandish situation to the next, and we ultimately discover that the former’s real mission isn’t to take down a few cocaine dealers, but to prevent a potentially devastating terrorist attack.
From Paris is, to say the least, perplexing. For the first two acts, it’s a knock-about odd couple action comedy along the lines of Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs. or Red Heat.Where Morel’s Taken played out its, frankly, absurd storyline with scowling seriousness, From Paris‘s John Woo-like shootouts and fight scenes are played for laughs. Rhys Meyers spends almost half an hour wandering around holding a huge vase full of drugs, while Travolta appears to be wearing almost every item of clothing he owns.
But then, just as the film, and the audience, settle down into a familiar groove, Wax abruptly shoots an unarmed woman squarely in the forehead (at the dinner table, no less), and all of a sudden we’re in far, far murkier waters.
While the action scenes are no less outlandish here (one lengthy sequence has Travolta waving a bazooka around during a high speed car chase), the subject matter darkens considerably, taking in betrayal, religious fanaticism and suicide bombers.
Enjoyed for its action scenes, From Paris With Love is on a par with Taken, and Morel arranges and films his gunfights with brio. Travolta may not be the lithe stripling he was in Grease or Saturday Night Fever, but he still knows how to throw himself over a table in a shootout, and in one stand-out scene, beat up an entire gang of armed youths with savage abandon. It’s a performance he clearly enjoys, perhaps more than the audience, and there are a few excellent moments of macho camaraderie between his character and Rhys Meyers’ James.
But as enjoyably nonsensical as From Paris With Love is, it’s hard to ignore some of its nastier undercurrents. Like Taken, the film’s about white people killing evil foreigners, whether they’re Chinese drug runners or wild-eyed Pakistani terrorists. Of the three women who enjoy any screen time, all are either hookers, weak-minded and duplicitous or spitefully ungrateful.
If you can overlook its potentially repugnant subtexts (and I suspect there are some that won’t), From Paris With Love is a potentially entertaining slab of genre entertainment. But like John Travolta’s character, Wax, it’s dim, offensively brash and bordering on grim self parody.
There are moments of amusement, and plenty of explosions for action fans, but its Hong Kong-style violence is distractingly undercut by its questionable politics.
The main feature is complemented by a small selection of extras, including a half-hour making-of documentary, junket-style interviews with John Travolta, Pierre Morel and stunt coordinator Michel Julienne, in which everyone says how much they enjoyed working with everybody else.
Slightly more illuminating is a quarter-hour featurette about the reality of working as an undercover agent, and a four-minute look around the International Spy Museum.
From Paris With Love is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.