In 2006, on basically a whim, I decided to drive up to Seattle and see District B13, because some email offer had given me a free movie ticket of my choice. I was pleasantly surprised; while several critics and friends have criticized the film's plot as being either boring or stupid, I was more interested in the action and some of the witty dialogue buried in the script (mainly from Bibi Naceri, who plays the film's villain, Taha). In early 2008, a friend linked me to the trailer for Taken, which took a whole year to reach American shores but was ultimately worth the wait, thanks to an awesome performance by star Liam Neeson and more exhilarating, skull-to-sink action. Both films were helmed by newcomer Pierre Morel, but third time is not the charm. From Paris With Love demonstrates that Morel is still fully capable of directing an entertaining action sequence, but this time, the performances and dialogue aren't around to save everything else.
In this case, the performance in question really comes from John Travolta, still on an R-rated action kick after last year's Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 remake. He's certainly game for the movie and his role as American CIA agent Charlie Wax, enthusiastically humping the air, sneaking off with hookers, and doing the occasional bit of blow, but there isn't enough on the page to support his energy, and even if he gives 110%, he seems sort of uneasy playing seriously against type. He's at his best delivering the shorter gags in between clips, which requires more no-nonsense attitude than characterization, and doesn't involve anything as belabored as the awful Pulp Fiction reference the movie unleashes after a series of fight scenes.
Charlie is flanked by James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a lower-level CIA stooge looking to become a full-fledged agent. Driving Wax around is his first big assignment, but he's thrown off by Wax's unorthodox methods. To the movie's credit, Reece doesn't refuse to do what Wax tells him for very long (at least not to his face), but the whole loose-cannon vs. uptight professional concept doesn't go anywhere new in this movie. It'd be much more fun to see the two guys work together, even if they still think the other one is crazy. Rhys Myers does okay, but again the script is an issue. Wax has plenty of big scenes with crazy things to do, and yet the screenplay is still troubling; Reece on the other hand is basically an observer, so you can imagine how incredibly uninteresting the role has to be in comparison. The actor also lays on the American accent a little thick, arriving in the neighborhood of caricature, but not running up to the house and knocking on the door.
Wax and Reece's goal is to stop some sort of terrorrist cell currently hiding in Paris, but the details are fairly unclear. For one thing, the movie establishes that Wax has just lied to Reece to get what he wants, so when he changes his story, it's not clear whether or not he's telling the truth. At the time Wax chooses to tell Reece, Reece is also in the middle of a brief, mildly hallucinatory drug trip, which doesn't help, either. The one thing that really put a damper on the film for me was film's third act, in which the villain comes to light. Not only was I not a fan of the movie's thinking (no spoilers here), but the angle at which the movie approaches it, in terms of both emotion and plotting, is a letdown. An action film like this needs a bigger, more elaborate finale, because the audience is unlikely to truly invest in the characters; when I go to see a movie like From Paris With Love, I go expecting to see more rocket launchers and explosions, not impassioned speeches.
This is a feeling that, again, is compounded by Morel's effortless skill when it comes to gunplay. Even though you get the sense that the director is on autopilot, he still delivers in each and every set piece, sending bullets flying like nobody's business. It's such a relief to go to a modern action movie and see fights edited with some idea of what's actually going on rather than cut to incomprehensible ribbons, or to watch a few bad guys get popped without the cleanliness of the Hollywood-favorite PG-13 rating. Really, my love for R-rated action pictures, especially one with the kind of panache that Morel has, is enough to eke out a marginal recommendation from me. I'm just hoping that next time, the finished product feels like the cumulation of the director's other projects rather than the leftovers.
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