With a story from action wizard Luc Besson and a comfortable, if detached performance by bald, tattooed John Travolta, you can easily imagine what the actioner From Paris With Love is going to be like, and you'd be right. It's fast-paced, only makes sense some of the time, has nice visual effects, and zooms along its 92 minute running time, an entertaining bit of cinematic fluff.
The film centers on awkward wanna-be spy and US Embassy staffer James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who, when he isn't managing the daily schedule of stereotypically priggish Ambassador Bennington (Richard Durden), is skulking about switching license plates on parked cars, clumsily planting bugs in diplomatic offices, and dreaming of saving the world while viewing everything as a simplistic black and white chess game. His beautiful fiancée Caroline (Kasia Smutniak) encourages him while pursuing her own work as a clothing designer. She is, no surprise, more than she appears.
Tough secret agent/special forces outsider Charlie Wax (Travolta) shows up in Paris and Reece is assigned as his partner, though he's clearly just a driver and awkward straight man for the profanity-laced and extraordinarily violent agent as they create a swath of destruction through Parisian alleyways, Chinese restaurants, office complexes, and even some Parisian low income housing.
There are attempts to make the story deeper and more interesting, particularly how it glibly transitions from being a story of poisoned innocent American girl vengeance against a drug cartel to an anti-terrorist theme, but From Paris With Love never really bothers to take itself too seriously and nor should we. If you like the action genre, it's a diversion and that's about all.
One interesting aspect of From Paris with Love was what I can only describe as a MacGuffin: a Chinese urn full of heroin. You can see it in the photo below, actually, and Reece dutifully carries it for most of the movie, even as they go through security at the Eiffel Tower, take public transportation, and more. I mean, that's believable, right? 5 kilos of heroin in an urn and no-one notices?
When Waxman first shows up, there's a ridiculously implausible scene where he's swearing and arguing passionately with a French customs guard about bringing in a duffel bag full of "Rattle Snake" energy drinks. That scene has enough uses of the f-word to fill up a regular "R" movie all by itself, but it also offers up some ostensible insight into Waxman's character when he explains to Reece that the obscenities were intended to be a diversion. There are other scenes throughout the film that suggest Waxman is a slightly deeper character than the wise-cracking, hyper-violent, obscenity-laced superagent, but it's not really that much at the end of the day...
Waxman (John Travolta) and Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) with a prostitute and The Urn.
The movie also suffers from what so many action films seem to be afflicted with: bulletproof hero syndrome. In one notable - and exciting - shootout in a mannequin factory, Waxman, armed with a pair of pistols not only survives a shootout with about a dozen semi-automatic toting gang members, but manages to kill them all without even getting a scratch. The scene is reminiscent of a memorable one from The Matrix in its slow-motion glory, but still, ya gotta wonder about how immune anyone would really be from the flying bullets.
There are also moments where we almost get a thoughtful dialog, like when Reece asks Waxman, after learning that there's a terrorist component to the situation, "What if it's never over? What if we can't win?" But then *poof* the moment vanishes and we're back to tallying up the bodies as the swath of murder and destruction continues from reel to reel.
Having just seen Besson's District 13: Ultimatum, I particularly enjoyed the scenes when Waxman is chasing one of the terrorists across the rooftop: she keeps up a good pace, slipping down surfaces and ladders, jumping across gaps, but he's not a spring chicken and so his efforts to keep up are clearly those of an older man. A nice acknowledgement of Travolta's increasing age, even if the rest of the film shows him as extraordinarily fit and dangerous as heck, even against a half-dozen Asian street thugs.
Roger Ebert talks about "guilty pleasure movies", films that you know aren't great, don't necessarily make sense, and might be asinine or idiotic, but somehow, just somehow, they're fun and entertaining anyway. From Paris with Love isn't a great action film by any means, but it is an entertaining 92 minutes. Grab a six pack and invite a couple of buddies over, it'll be a fun rental.