From Paris With Love

From Paris With Love


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

As a huge fan of the action movie genre, I occasionally come across a film that transcends its conventions and offers, as well as memorable set pieces, some genuine character development and interesting insights into the way of life of the secret agent in the post 9/11 world.

But most of the time I have to sit through crass, lazy, predictable stuff like From Paris With Love. A stupid film in the worst sense of the word, it bolts a ‘mismatched buddy’ pitch from the Lethal Weapon-era onto a ham-fisted attempt to acknowledge that there’s a ‘war on terror’ going on – with noisy, irritating and in the end deeply offensive consequences.

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One half of the duo is Rees (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a personal aide to the US ambassador in Paris (Richard Durden). But unbeknown to his embassy bosses, he’s also moonlighting for a shadowy agency (yes, them again). This mainly involves low-level surveillance stuff, giving him plenty of time to return to his beautiful apartment and his beautiful, oh-so-Frunch girlfriend Caroline (Kasia Smutniak).

But he’s desperate to move into the big espionage league. Careful what you wish for, Johnners. Before you can say ‘the grey geese are flying tonight’ he’s been assigned to look after Charlie Wax (John Travolta), one of the top operatives from said shadowy agency.

And, wouldn’t you know it, Charlie turns out to be a loud-mouthed maverick who just wants to get the job done and doesn’t mind stepping on a few toes to do it. We first encounter him ranting at the cheese-eating surrender monkey who won’t let him take a bag full of energy drinks through Customs. And within five minutes he’s wasted a Chinese restaurant full of drug-dealers.

But they’re only the first in a United Nations of ethnic stereotypes that require blowing away, as it becomes clear that Charlie’s mission in town is to do more than clean the scum off the boulevards. Wiping out the drug gang isn’t just the pretext for a ‘hilarious’ sequence where Rees has to follow Charlie carrying a Ming vase full of cocaine. No. It gets our heroes closer to a proper terrorist plot. But who’s behind it? And why does Rees seem to figure more prominently in the plans than an embassy aide ought to?

To be fair, the film does manage one half-decent twist. But most of the time the story is simply a way of moving from one gunfight or car chase to another. Morel (cinematographer on The Transporter) handles it all with a bloodless, joyless competence, ticking the boxes without ever realising that these things are only exciting if they’re serving an interesting story involving characters you care about.

Travolta, looking like an embarrassing uncle in the throes of a mid-life crisis, never develops Charlie into anything more than a neo-con poster boy, reacting to any problem or complication by shouting at it or shooting it. Rhys-Meyers, a magnetic presence in Velvet Goldmine and an engaging one in Bend It Like Beckham, will perhaps get a mature film role to match his talents one day, but this sure ain’t it. It’s hard to work up much sympathy for his smug gofer, deceiving his embassy employers and obeying the voice on the mobile for no better reason than an apparent belief that being a ‘real’ spy is cool.

But, perhaps aware that in the Bourne and reborn Bond era a bit more character conflict is required, Besson and Hassak engineer a bit of ‘emotional peril’ for Rees. To be fair, Rhys-Meyers looks genuinely traumatised by having to venture into the darker side of a spy’s life. But the filmmakers bend over backwards to assure us that he’s a good guy really, and soon after he’s loosing off clips and cracking quips with the best of them. Phew.

This ‘you can have your fun and feel OK about it’ philosophy reaches a nadir at the climactic standoff, which features a jaw-dropping ‘love is better than violence’ monologue. Considering that we’ve spent the past 90 minutes being shown how cool it is to massacre unnamed extras, blow stuff up and turn the periphery into a dodgem car ride, hypocrisy doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Lighten up, you might say. Well, they started it. If Besson (once the best in the business when it came to stylish, intriguing thrillers) had stayed in the geopolitical never-never land of the Transporter series it might have passed muster as a bit of innocent fun. But if you’re going to have a post 9/11 setting at least try to make some serious points. This film’s worldview is best summed up by a line from Travolta: "Sometimes talking just don’t get it done." Oh, and the only trustworthy or efficient people in the espionage world are the Americans. Yeah, right.

If you like your action cinema to have something resembling a heart and a brain, avoid this at all costs. The title, and a ‘Royale with cheese’ reference that recalls Pulp Fiction, simply serve to remind you that this sort of thing’s been done before. And so, so much better.

Reviewed on: 14 Mar 2010
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From Paris With Love packshot
A low-ranking official at the US embassy in Paris teams up with a special agent to foil a terrorist plot.
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Director: Pierre Morel

Writer: Adi Hasak, Luc Besson

Starring: John Travolta, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Kasia Smutniak, Richard Durden

Year: 2010

Runtime: 92 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France


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