How many comebacks can one actor have? John Travolta enjoyed a reign in the Eighties from his success on Saturday Night Fever and Grease, all the way through to his decent thriller, Blow-Out. Aside from the frivolously enjoyable Look Who’s Talking, it was not until 1994’s Pulp Fiction that Travolta returned to the front line, and he managed to get a succession of relatively high profile movies off the back of it – including high points Get Shorty and Face/Off (arguably the performance of his career, having an immense amount of fun pretending to be Nic Cage). But, since then, all he’s really been remembered for is the abysmal Battlefield Earth, an extended advert/origin story for Travolta’s pet hobby: Scientology – you know, that religion where the more you contribute, the more significant a ‘worshipper’ you become, hence why Tom Cruise is the top of the food chain? Ah well, at least Battlefield was kinda so-bad-that’s-it’s-good in a Showgirls-esque way. But it nevertheless pretty-much ruined any credibility Tarantino previously re-instilled with Pulp Fiction all those years ago.
Then last year’s Tony Scott/Denzel Washington remake, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, returned a Travolta that many viewers have been missing for some time – the character actor revelling in his scenery-chewing role as the main villain. It wasn’t top class Travolta, but he was still on good form, the best he’d been in years. And now, with the help of the consistently entertaining team of writer Luc Besson and Director Pierre Morel (who previously reinvigorated veteran Liam Neeson’s solo career with the sleeper hit actioner Taken), Travolta returns, once again, to the front line with From Paris With Love. Will this be another comeback, a last shot at getting some high profile choice roles? Or will it be yet another nail in his Hollywood coffin?
Charlie Wax doesn’t play by the rules. He doesn’t wait for orders or backup. He doesn’t follow any procedure that isn’t generated by his gut. And he shoots first and doesn’t ask questions later. So when low-level undercover CIA spook James Reese gets his dream opportunity – to work in high level espionage – and consequently gets partnered up with Wax, he really has no idea what he is in for. Within a matter of hours, he witnesses the cocky, eccentric veteran dispatch dozens of gun-toting gang-members – and blow up a couple of cars just for good measure – with the aid of his trusty favourite Sig Sauer, along with basically any other weapon he can get his hands on. Needless to say Reese has no idea what is going on, Wax running from one lead to the next, his finger never far from the trigger, and with no real plan in mind other than ‘stop a bunch of terrorists’. Will Reese survive and save the day or will the crazy Charlie Wax be the end of the both of them?
From Paris with Love is extremely silly. Really. But it is quite fun as well. It’s no Taken – it is too preposterous even for that (and that takes some doing) – but it is nevertheless fairly enjoyable for its thankfully short runtime. The narrative makes little to no sense – there is one particular scene set on the Eiffel Tower which, as far as I can tell, is purely there just to show off the National monument – and attempts to fill in the massive plot-holes and multitude of questions that audience members may have, with non-stop action set-pieces. Seriously, within a few minutes of character ‘development’ to establish Reese’s inexperience, we are introduced to the wisecracking, f-bombing Middle Eastern shemagh scarf-wearing Charlie Wax, and from there on out, he basically just gets into fights. Fights in restaurants involving guns, hand-to-hand fights with street gangs, fights in apartment buildings filled with drug dealers... the list goes on. You really would not like to go for a beer with this guy. He would likely shoot a bunch of people and then run off across the rooftop to fire a rocket at a getaway car before you had the chance to order your first Corona.
There are, of course, a few problems with all of this. Firstly, it has a wafer-thin plot. I mean, honestly, does Luc Besson have a pro forma document where he just fills in the gaps with character names? Because his writing, since Fifth Element, has been consistently atrocious. Still, many of his movies turn out to be quite good fun. And you can probably excuse the script quality given that you know exactly who was behind making it, and what his movies are about these days. Secondly, the plot that there is, has been done before. Not least by a little known film called Training Day. You know, that tremendous movie that earned Denzel an Oscar? Few would argue that Antoine Fuqua’s dark and frantic corrupt cop drama does not best From Paris with Love on every single level. But some would argue that the Director/Writer combo team’s last film, Taken, was just a rehash of the infinitely superior Man on Fire (again starring Washington), and that certainly does not take away from the fact that Taken was bloody enjoyable in its own right. So, you can excuse the movie these aspects. The real trouble is that you just don’t like the characters very much. At all.
John Travolta hasn’t been this over-the-top in years. I would love to say that this was an unabashed compliment, but unfortunately it’s not. It takes a good fifteen minutes or so before Travolta’s manic Charlie Wax even becomes vaguely tolerable – and even longer before you have a clue as to what on earth he is doing. And, sure, it is nice to see him putting his all into a role, really trying his best as an action hero, but he does not quite pull that off either. He has the moves, runs the roofs, and takes down his fair share of opponents, but he just does not look completely at ease with it all. Talking of ill at ease, what on Earth is going wrong with his accent and perpetual need to use random, out-of-place, street-slang? A little more tongue-in-cheek and this could have been a great role for him, as he’s clearly still got the energy. Still, whilst this may not be the second coming of John ‘Pulp Fiction’ Travolta, it is also far from a nail in his coffin. Though many will find him neither all that likeable, nor all that convincing, few will be able to deny that his performance is both reasonably engaging and strangely entertaining; and it probably just about holds together the rest of the movie.
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is the real let-down, however. He is frankly terrible in the much more fleshed out role as the inexperience agent thrown into the fire. And you have far greater expectations from him because of his powerful work in The Tudors as Henry VII. Of course, Henry was a bit of an arrogant a-hole, and that’s all Meyers appears to be capable of. Here, he’s no different, playing chess blind, like some kind of multi-tasking genius, mumbling trite lines about ‘not being able to handle this’ and following Travolta’s manic antics with absolutely zero alacrity (which is shocking considering he’s practically half his age). There’s nobody else you’ll recognise in the movie, although Reese’s girlfriend, played by beautiful newcomer Kasia Smutniak, gets a fair amount of screen-time, even if she does not put that to particularly good use.
Still, the movie’s not about acting, it’s about fun and explosions and guns and chases. It’s just a shame because you really need two central characters you like, even if the movie’s never going to be up for an Oscar. On the action-front, the movie does deliver – both in bodycount (which is higher than taken) and in set-pieces. However, the action isn’t quite as cool. It tries to be – at one point Travolta’s Wax runs through a warehouse in slo-mo, spraying the sides with twin machine-pistols – but never quite pulls it off. A couple of moments stand out – Wax’s technique to get rid of fingerprint evidence on Reese’s car is excellent, and his window-entry clear-out of the drug-dealer/terrorist apartment block is pretty enjoyably stylish too – but overall the movie is a middling effort even in action terms. If placed amidst the recent bevy of generic Luc Besson-penned stupid-but-fun action-films, the order would have to go something like this: Taken, Transporter, From Paris with Love, District 13, Transporter 2, Transporter 3, District 13: Ultimatum. So whilst it’s far from bad, it’s also far from the top of a list of movies that nobody is going to ever call great in the first place (except for, perhaps, Taken, which is why it gets the top spot).
When it comes down to it, your enjoyment of the movie will largely depend on just what number on the dial you can turn your brain down to. If the off mode, for you personally, really does not involve any residual requirement to have a coherent, comprehensible plot, likeable characters, and consistently good notch action (for this kind of movie) then you should be fine. As no-brainer action flicks go, this one tops The Expendables (although that is far from a high standard as I frankly thought Stallone’s ensemble 80s throwback flick was disappointly amateurish and, frankly, quite boring) and will probably engage most genre fans, at least for its duration. Be prepared, however, as it is clear this one is going to turn into a franchise. That said, I think that this is not such a bad thing, as – just with The Expendables – I suspect the second movie may be an improvement. From Paris with Love is silly, pretty unmemorable, but sporadically fun and undeniably action-packed.
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