Throughout a significant portion of "From Paris With Love", the new film from producer Luc Besson and director Pierre Morel ("Taken"), James Reece (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), an American Embassy Assistant eager to become a CIA operative saddled with the duty of carrying around a large Chinese vase filled with cocaine. His partner and boss, Charlie Wax (John Travolta) entrusts the vase to him and wants the younger man to have it available at all times, it could be important, even as they run through tenement buildings and fight off various people with guns. My companion and I determined the reason Rhys Meyers was carrying this around was to inhibit him and allow Travolta, the older star, to have the opportunity to use martial arts, weapons and his fists, to make Travolta seem more athletic, agile and lithe. This is only the first of many problems with "Paris".
Let's face it; Luc Besson's films have never placed a priority on narrative and character development. He writes and produces the French equivalent of a bad Joel Silver action films. Take a couple of disparate stars, give them improbable occupations and place them in unbelievable situations all in an effort to get them in the middle of increasingly preposterous action sequences. I have mentioned on more than one occasion that I tend to see a lot of these films. For every two or three that just don't work, Silver occasionally uses a group of people who help create a memorable, fun film. For every "Lethal Weapon" and "Die Hard", there are two or three "Fair Games" (Cindy Crawford and Billy Baldwin), two or three "Cradle 2 The Graves" (Jet Li and Romeo) and worse. Besson is exactly the same. It seems as though for every "Taken", we will have to wade through films like "From Paris With Love".
"Taken" is not all that different from "Paris". Both films depict a fast-paced 'mission' hardened men take in the City of Lights. As they careen through the city, an impossible number of bullets fly, cars crash, and people die. But "Taken" has a key element that helps make that particular film work, making it more successful. That element is Liam Neeson. He seems like an odd choice for such a film; until you look at the fact he has appeared in a number of big budget Hollywood films alongside the smaller, more dramatic turns he has also done. "Taken" tells the story of a father who learns his daughter has been kidnapped while on vacation in Paris. He immediately resurrects his shadowy past (he did some sort of government work, work that is never completely identified) and chases her trail, ruthlessly killing most of the people who get in his way. The story is just this side of unbelievable and the action is over the top. What saves the film is Neeson's performance; he is so serious and grave throughout the film, we come to believe his character is on a real quest to save his daughter. His performance tips the scales and makes the film more believable, more interesting and more memorable.
It even helps us overcome the scene in which his 18-year-old daughter (Maggie Grace, TV's "Lost") gets a pony for her birthday.
In "From Paris With Love", the filmmakers have taken the same bare structure of their previous hit and mucked it up something fierce. Travolta is usually pretty good as the off-kilter psycho ("Face/Off"), the man who doesn't really care what happens and this only serves to make him more uninhibited, willing and able to do anything to accomplish his goals. In "Paris", he plays Charlie Wax, a bald headed man with a dark goatee who causes trouble for James at every turn. James is summoned to the airport to help get Charlie out of customs; Charlie insists he be allowed into the country with a number of cans of his favorite energy drink. As soon as James arrives, he realizes Charlie is crazy and this is problematic because this is our first impression as well. The only place for his character to go from there is become more realistic. Let me rephrase that. The only place for his character to go from there, and become more believable, is to become more realistic. But Charlie is the type of guy who shoots first and asks questions later. He never becomes more believable because he continues to do unbelievable things. As he becomes more cartoonish, the film quickly falls apart and we start to get bored. When the audience gets bored, it almost seems like all of the other problems jump off the screen, vying for our attention.
One of the few moments that work is a scene following James as he struggles, he's carrying that huge vase, remember, up a spiral staircase in a Paris apartment building, trying to keep up with his boss. A couple of flights below his mentor, bodies begin to rain down and James has to weave his way through the human debris.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays James Reece, the American Embassy assistant who does freelance work for the CIA. He seems to really, really want to be an operative for the CIA and gets his instructions from a faceless voice on his cell phone.
A couple of times, he almost seems to wink at the camera. Look at this, it's going to be great. But this type of light-hearted tone, doesn't mesh with the body count and the violent story throughout the rest of the film.
Reece lives with his longtime girlfriend, Caroline (Kasia Smutniak) and his face lights up every time he comes home to her. They are very much in love and both prone to trying to outdo each other in romantic gestures. One night, she proposes to him, because he never will and gives him a ring that once belonged to her father.
"Paris" has a story, but it seems vague and unimportant, something about a possible terrorist attack. I say it seems unimportant because it takes forever for Charlie to even reveal this little bit of information to his partner James. And when this is revealed, we begin to question the need or importance of the Chinese vase filled with cocaine. By keeping James in the dark, he manages to keep the viewer in the dark. The story isn't important to the filmmakers, they simply want to get Travolta and Rhys Meyers together and lead them through one action scene after another. This is the only point for the whole film, to create a bunch of situations for Travolta and his partner to shoot, fight, kill their way out of.
It is also a little shocking to see the sheer number of foreigners killed in this film. With the exception of maybe a small handful of people, everyone the duo kills is Chinese, Pakistani, Black or of some other undetermined foreign origin. In "Taken", Neeson's character plowed his way through similar communities of immigrants in his search for his daughter. In "Paris", I really can't remember anyone killed who was identified as French or American. Is Besson trying to tell us something? Either he wants to paint Paris as a melting pot of people from many diverse backgrounds or he wants to show the state of his beautiful city. Whichever is true is impossible for me to say for sure, but I have my suspicions.
"From Paris With Love" is a film filled with impossible action, an inconsequential story and impressive overacting. It is a film impossible to love.