When Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that life got better after 50, he could have been prophesying about John Travolta. His career has been one of peaks and plunges, punctuated by some of cinema’s most interesting fashion moments (“Saturday Night Fever” and “Battlefield Earth” come to mind). Ever since he hit 50 five years ago, however, Travolta seems ensconced in a mode of cinematic go-to-hell gleefulness.
While he single-handedly boosted the morale of the otherwise sleepily pedestrian “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3″ remake with the unforgettable line, “Lick my bunghole!,” and dabbled in embarrassing music videos with daughter Ella Bleu (“Every Little Step”), for “From Paris With Love” he pulled out all the stops to go for total, undiluted obnoxiousness. Filthy, foul-mouthed racism: check. Stinking, offensive chauvinism: check. Unforgivable wardrobe and shining bald head accented with a classic gold hoop earring: jackpot. Travolta’s jiving, crotch-bumping, bazooka-wielding Charlie Wax makes Bruce Willis’ “Die Hard” protagonist John McClane look like a mild-mannered, salt-of-the-earth type.
“From Paris With Love” operates on the classic “odd couple” formula, pairing a smooth, suave and handsome guy with a greasy, off-color punk to create blockbuster gold. It’s a formula that works across national borders and language barriers, and French filmmaker Pierre Morel (best known for the mean action thriller “Taken”) takes the driver’s seat, steering the film with enough gusto to confidently mow over any bumps or holes the plot may have. It kinda restores your faith in action movies.
Playing the other half of this duo is Jonathan Rhys Meyers as James Reece, a personal assistant to the U.S. ambassador in France, who is being secretly groomed for a future CIA career.
James is living it up in Paris. He dons stylish silk suits, has a gorgeous French girlfriend (Kasia Smutniak) and lives in a quaint Parisian apartment. James’ pretty boy looks and odd-sounding American accent, however, belie his supposed history as a poor boy from the Bronx. This discrepancy could have led to an interesting twist in the film (does he have a hidden identity? false passport?), but Morel ignores such distractions and instead paints the character as a desk jockey looking to get his hands dirty with a little action. Charlie Wax — brought in from the United States to counter a terrorist attack — is happy to indulge him.
After gunning down what appears to be most of the population in Chinatown in the 13th Arrondisement, Wax soothes the guilt-ridden Reece with: “How many more of them do you think there are? Last census, about a billion!” And why stop at Chinatown? Wax guns his way through the “paki” and “raghead” slums to the sound of screaming babies and sobbing women, shrugging off the body count in the name of serving his country.
That, combined with Wax’s reputation as America’s best antiterrorism agent (with “unorthodox methods” of course), puts “Paris” comfortably into a screwball groove. The trailer may tout this as serious and soulful fare, but make no mistake, Morel is out to entertain with a hysteria-inducing film that pays no heed to the word “cringeworthy.” From Wax’s infamous self-descriptive quip “Wax on, Wax off” — delivered whenever he’s about to do something brutal — to the all-too-familiar plot involving a suicide bomber at an Aid For Africa summit, Morel descends to below-sea level depths with astonishing determination.
Morel is, however, a disciple of director-producer Luc Besson, who coproduced this movie and appears to enjoy exposing a different side to French filmmaking (the “Taxi” movies he wrote became a franchise that bulldozed over the French film industry with its slapstick vigor). Not surprisingly, however, despite the location, the premise and the producer, no one speaks Francais in “From Paris with Love.” In fact, if it weren’t for Wax demanding to have breakfast on top of the Eiffel Tower (how classically American) you wouldn’t even know it’s Paris. But then, as Wax so crudely puts it: “Doesn’t f–king matter!” We’ll have to take his word for it.