Last year, the Liam Neeson-starring sleeper hit Taken divided the public and critics alike. Was it a throw back to 80s action pantomime, a morally repugnant and overtly racist excuse to see a white man ethnically cleanse the Parisian ghettos, or an ironic allegory on America’s ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ foreign policy – all wrapped up in a hyper stylised bow for the ‘yee-ha!’ dunderheads?
An artist laughing at their audience is always a sure sign of artifice, but writer/producer Luc Besson (who’s had previous with this sort of thing) pulled Taken through with a combination of slick direction from Pierre Morel, an intense performance from Neeson and sense of visceral catharsis just silly enough for the audience not to feel ashamed of themselves for enjoying it. In short, he got away with it.
Pulling the same trick twice, though, shows both arrogance and contempt.
Why the rant? Well, quite simply, From Paris With Love is exactly the same film as Taken, except with John Travolta overacting instead of Neeson growling and seasoning of buddy comedy thrown into the pot. Hold on to your butts, it’s clichés-up-to-eleven time.
The film opens on James Reece, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers (an interesting casting choice), a political aid working for the US Embassy in Paris who also doubles as a low level CIA field operative. Nothing glamorous, just switching a few number plates around and planting the odd bug here and there.
He’s a typically smug career guy, a suave dude who sits around drinking fine red wine and listening to excruciating lounge bar jazz. You know the type, instantly hateable. This sentiment is cemented when he woos his girlfriend, Caroline (the beautiful Kasia Smutniak, in her first role outside Italy), with the verbal excrement of, “Why don’t we skip dinner and go straight to desert?” This is the kind of dialogue that only turns up in films, because any girl with half a brain would laugh in your face if you ever tried as fromage-scented a seduction technique. Predictable Schtick 1, Suspension of Disbelief 0.
The action lingers on Reece for a while until John Travolta arrives to excite the adrenal glands as Charlie Wax, a CIA assassin/xenophobic attack dog. Wax – whose death-quip catchphrase is “Wax on, Wax Off.” – has been sent to Paris to kill a lot of foreigners, preferably of the black, Asian and oriental variety. His excuses for this genocide vary, with busting drug dealers, clearing terrorist cells and generally punishing un-American activities being his usual raison d’être. However, the exact nature of his mission is never explained.
Travolta seems resigned to going through the only routine he can now (or at least gets hired for): manic exaggeration and general buffoonery. Looking back through my notes, I see three phrases jotted down to describe Wax: bile spewing, jive taking toad and the Hairy Bikers meets the Hells Angels via a Hare Krishna acolyte, none of which are particularly complimentary.
Wax is meant to be some sort of ADHD force of nature. A man who lives to bag a bad guy then chomp down on a Big Mac (sorry, Royale with cheese), a real patriot. But, and this is From Paris With Love‘s biggest failing, he’s just like the really brash guy who gatecrashes your party, drinks all your beer and then starts a fight after getting blown out by your girlfriend. A man for whom the term ‘douche bag’ was invented.
For all this excruciating characterisation, the film does have some positives. At least it doesn’t take itself seriously and tries to inject a splash of classic opposites attract buddy humour. There are some interesting set pieces, too, with Reece running round with a replica Ming vase full of cocaine for half the movie, which is pretty cool as far as plot devices go.
Morel’s direction, while very MTV, is sexy, creating a relentless orgy of balletic gunfights and violence. Highly superficial enjoyment, though, and after the sixth shoot out you may find yourself feeling drained.
My biggest grind with From Paris With Love is the one I raised at the beginning of this review, that I feel like the filmmakers are laughing at their audience. As if they’re like, “These shmucks are so stupid they’ll swallow anything we give ‘um.” And, to be frank, I don’t like that idea. Roland Emmerich does it too, and I got fooled while watching 2012, thinking it was post-ironic irony, but it’s not. It’s just lame.
From Paris With Love is a grotty little piece of lowest common denominator escapism. The whole ‘turn your brain off and let your eyes enjoy the ride’ is an excuse too often peddled out, so no longer!
No doubt there will be people that enjoy this movie, but my response to them would be this: are you really happy to support a manifesto on ultra-conservative idealism made as a joke to line the pockets of trendy European fashionistas?
Nope, doesn’t sound too appealing.