No love lost on this film

Posted: Thursday, February 11, 2010

'From Paris with Love'

Europa Corp.

1 hour, 32 minutes

Luc Besson, who, in the 90s, established himself as one of the top action innovators in film, has lately taken on a new role: that of facilitator of some of the worst action movies to come out since Swarzenegger gave us "Commando." Writing, producing, and presenting under his name, Besson has brought us the terrible "Transporter" movies, last year's "Taken," which many liked but I found both poorly constructed and way too dark for its rating, as well as a four-film series of a French action/comedy called "Taxi," the first of which was remade in America with Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon in the driver's seat.

Now he has brought us "From Paris with Love," a movie that offends me deeply, not because of particularly objectionable content, but because it's obvious that no one involved is even trying anymore.

John Travolta, apparently figuring that since he'd already shaved his head and grown a ridiculous goatee for "The Taking of Pelham 123," he might as well take advantage of the look in another stupid movie, is super-secret agent Charlie Wax. He's bold, bad, irreverent, and likes nothing more than a day of offing terrorists, boffing prostitutes, and snorting a little coke on the side -- all on Uncle Sam's dime.

Arriving in Paris with a flourish, Wax is partnered with nebbishy Junior Agent James Reese, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Reese is a by-the-book kind of guy, but willing to do what it takes to rise in the ranks and become a real secret agent. Will a day spent with Wax change his mind? The answer comes straight from Paris, with love.

Love? The "love" in the title is provided by the aforementioned prostitute, as well as Reese's ridiculously supportive and understanding fiance Caroline, a character who is a prime example of the laziness of the script. When things go awry and suspicion begins to mount, Reese offers that, "I had the agency to a complete check on her! She passed completely!" Five minutes later, he tearfully tells us that "I don't know a single thing about this girl! She never talked about her past and I never thought to ask!" Huh? It's painfully obvious that the people in charge believe that plot only exists as a conduit from one action scene to the next.

You might read the above description of Wax's gonzo demeanor and imagine that "Paris" is a dark and gritty actioner, featuring a wildly flawed protagonist and a naive protege about to learn the dark depths a life undercover can take you. Kind of an international "Training Day." But no, there is no explicit or even implicit criticism of Wax here. The villains are all bad (and dark-skinned), the hero is heroic specifically because of his willingness to flaunt convention (such as the prohibition on using bazookas on the freeway) and the only one who doesn't know what's going on is the guy who thinks he should play by the rules.

Disliking a movie like this makes me feel like a real stick in the mud, but it's not that I don't enjoy action -- it's just that I think a story should have some semblance of plausibility rather than consisting merely of one scene of carnage after another. And make no mistake, Besson and his former cinematographer Pierre Morel, who directed both "Taken" and "Paris," know how to do action. The shoot-outs, explosions, and gang brawls are all choreographed well and are certainly exciting. But after a while, even good action needs something to provide it some structure. Relatable characters, logical storyline, even passable dialogue would be nice. "Paris" has none of these.

The acting in this film is flat out bad. But, again, it's not as if the talent isn't there. They just don't care. Meyers has been very good in other films, and has made a name playing a young Henry the Eighth on "The Tudors." Travolta is a top-tier movie star and a two-time Oscar nominee. But here he's all over the place. You get the idea that the director just told him to "have fun with it!" Bad move. John Travolta is one of those good actors who only rises to the material, instead of elevating it. In other words, garbage in, garbage out.

The most obvious example that no one involved in the making of this film really cared about quality comes early, maybe just a few minutes in. Reese, as a cover for his real job as a spy, has been placed in the office of the American Ambassador to France. The actor playing said ambassador is a virtual unknown -- working mostly in television, according to the Internet Movie Database.

There's no reason for him to be a name as he's only in a few scenes and has little to do with the plot.

The problem is that he's obviously not from the good old U.S. of A. His accent comes across as fairly thick French, with a hint of Eastern Europe, covered clumsily with a hint of nasally American.

Why does this matter, you may ask? Because it would have been exceedingly simple to get an American for that role. Even a Frenchman who could do a proper accent would have been fine. But because the scriptwriters don't care, and filmmakers don't care, and the actors don't care, they all assume that you, the audience doesn't care, either.

So what's the difference if the American ambassador is American, or French, or Hungarian for that matter?

Well, I care, but they already got my money. Maybe you can save yours.

Grade: D+

"From Paris with Love" is rated R for language, sexual situations, and bloody violence.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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