With “District B13” and last year’s runaway train of parental purpose, “Taken,” Pierre Morel positioned himself as a superior action director, and one of the few film minds able to process producer Luc Besson’s harebrained story ideas and cockamamie characterizations. “From Paris with Love” is their latest collaboration, but the timing is off, the script’s stupidity is more grating than endearing, and Morel is forced to contend with a giant slab of Hormel’s finest (assuming the shape of John Travolta) for this action-comedy. These are simple ingredients, but Morel and Besson appear distracted for this round of Euro smash-em-up, making the film disappointingly clumsy and strangely unadventurous.
A clever assistant to the U.S. ambassador in France, James Reese (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is eager to join the big guns at the C.I.A., where his wits would be put to good use saving the world. An opportunity to prove himself comes with the arrival of partner Charlie Wax (John Travolta), a loose-cannon agent with little interest in criminal small talk. Tearing across Paris on the hunt for a terror cell of Islamic fundamentalists, Wax takes Reese on a journey of gunplay and superspy bravado, infiltrating the seedy side of the city while the overwhelmed agent-in-training tries to calm the escalating protests emerging from his girlfriend (Kasia Smutniak).
I’ll give “From Paris with Love” this much: the movie moves. Morel has a masterful touch when it comes to pace, and his latest benefits from such refreshing acceleration. The opening sets up the characters in frustratingly vague ways, but once Wax hits the film, the screenplay (by Adi Hasak, who previously wrote 1997’s “Shadow Conspiracy”) takes off like a demon, arranging a series of unsavory characters for Wax and Reese to beat down and shoot up. The movement of Morel’s direction is genuinely thrilling, leaping from location to location ready to make some noise, staging gunfire and action set-pieces with a slightly cartoon quality to match Travolta’s nutty performance. There’s a nice chunk of entertainment value to be found in the feature.
I’m not suggesting Morel’s previous pictures were extraordinary achievements of cinema, but for matinee candy, they were beautifully executed, strongly acted, and contained genuine surprise. “From Paris with Love” is a little sleepy in the amazement department. Save for one wild bit of business that features Wax and Reese strung out on stolen coke, the film doesn’t offer many jolts. Instead, the script is excruciatingly underlined, with the two main characters spelling out their every move for the audience, and in the case of Rhys Meyers, it’s exposition emerging from the worst American accent imaginable (Gerard Butler, you’ve been replaced). “From Paris with Love” didn’t need to be subtle, but it should’ve allowed for more gleefully bewildering behavior. Instead the script doles out tired puns, lame self-referential jokes, and a works a twist into the story that Reese doesn’t even believe (that makes two of us) while nursing a bullet wound that erases any doubt.
“From Paris with Love” goes over-the-top with stunts and weaponry (Wax speeding down a Parisian highway toting a rocket launcher is a memorable visual), launches more than its fair share of profanity-laced one-liners, and indulges Travolta wherever it can (including his Jack Sparrow/Mr. Clean appearance), but it never congeals into a rousing action bonanza. Morel spoils the tone by including flashes of real world threat and violent consequence, which is a baffling choice for a film this one-dimensional. The brakes are applied intermittently throughout the picture, culminating with an embassy showdown that seeks to merge ridiculousness with poignancy. I don’t know, can a teary finale peacefully coexist in a film where Wax names his gun “Mrs. Jones,” serenading his weapon with the immortal Billy Paul classic? Turns out, no.
I wanted to enjoy “From Paris with Love” more than I actually did, but the schizophrenic nature of the picture, along with its need to dumb everything way down to appease the mass audience, wears on the senses after a short while. The R-rated bullet ballet is lively, and a bonkers Travolta is always good for a laugh or two, but the picture doesn’t come through on its promise of a cartwheeling good time. It’s a shame, since Morel and Besson are capable of such wonderful madness.Rating: C