Monday, February 8, 2010

Berk! Non Merci: FROM PARIS WITH LOVE













I don’t for one second think that From Paris with Love is as xenophobic, racist, and sexist as Charlie Wax, the bulky covert-ops agent who is played by John Travolta and is the center of this action movie. And yet, the movie never quite figures out how to handle him. Travolta looks the part for a goofy actioner; he’s striking enough with a bald head and dangling earrings, but, even though he’s given sometimes fun action moments to deliver, he’s also given jokey one-liners that are just a little queasier than they should be.

Take, for instance, the scene that finds him with his new partner, a just promoted agent played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, infiltrating the Parisian headquarters of a Chinese drug ring. The scene starts reasonably promising as Travolta runs ahead of Meyers up a spiral staircase. The camera stays with Meyers as he reacts in shock as fresh corpses spin down the center of the staircase. When we and he finally catch up to Travolta, Meyers asks “How many more of them are there?” Travolta replies, “About a billion.” It’s initially funny, but it doesn’t sit well.

I’m afraid this character might play a little too well to the kind of action fan who can’t parse the finer points of shoot-em-up satire, as that’s precisely what the film is. Travolta’s character is most definitely a satire of the American stereotype of with-us-or-against-us win-at-all-costs mentality, but at some point during the making of the film, I think the point got lost, or at least obscured.

This is the third film from French director Pierre Morel. His first was the fast-paced District B13, a futuristic parkour film which suffers only from action sequences vastly more skillful than the film that houses them. Next, he made last year’s blockbuster hit Taken, in which Liam Neeson trashes through Paris looking for the men who kidnapped his vacationing daughter. That film was better than Morel’s first, with a tense lead performance from the reliable Neeson, but the film comes up short, literally, ending much too quickly after wasting its first act on so much vapid character building. We needed to see more of Neeson in action instead of us waiting around to see if he would finally decide to buy that new karaoke machine, even if the action was a little off-putting with its waves of anonymous villainous Middle-Easterners. With From Paris with Love Morel has backslid, creating a movie that only sporadically springs to life in the enjoyable action moments that he’s starting to become known for.

This is a movie that is a junky mess, an unhealthy combination of French sleaze and American grease. It’s a grimy, often unenjoyable affair with smarm put precisely where the charm should be. Travolta plops through the movie as a giant moving ham oddly disconnected from the action, while Meyers stammers and looks bewildered at his co-star’s antics. Neither of them engaged me in any way and they had no help from the plot, which takes so long to actually get started that I was surprised that a plot showed up at all. This is one seriously dormant action movie, curiously without any sense of forward momentum or even much energy of any kind. I was also surprised that the movie managed to pull off a fairly surprising late-breaking twist, but I was quickly disappointed to see how goofy, and off-putting, said twist really was.

I enjoyed the aforementioned spiral staircase shootout and a third-act car chase that has Travolta leaning out of the passenger window while brandishing a rocket launcher. Some of the shots of Paris look quite wonderful as the landmarks flash by. I was grateful that the movie ends up settling into being irritating instead of putrefying into something actively repulsive. There’s a nugget of an enjoyable movie here, but between the uneasy handling of a deliberately offensive character and the stagnant plotting, there’s not much to latch onto. Morel has potential to be a great action director. Hopefully with his next film he can become one.

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