39) From Paris with Love (2010) Dir: Pierre Morel Date Released: February 2010 Date Seen: February 5, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5
Cinematographer Pierre Morel has always known how to shoot an action scene but it's taken him a few films in the director's chair to figure out what to do with them. His directorial debut District 13, scripted and produced by benefactor and frequent collaborator Luc Besson, benefited a great deal from having Cyril Raffaelli, one of the film's two stuntman stars, choreograph the film's fight scenes. But that project didn't have the proper material or more importantly the daft energy to build up and around its wonderfully tactile action montages. Morel just couldn't sustain a mood to build up to those scenes. Taken, his second feature, put him on the right path with a sap-happy, thoroughly generic, bare-bones revenge plot. Morel allowed himself to get a little more messy, siccing an appropriately grim, frothing-mad Liam Nesson on a group of Albanian terrorists that have kidnapped his teen daughter. It lagged in stretches but was nevertheless a noted improvement. Now with From Paris with Love Morel has turned out the best expression of his broad but amiably cartoonish sensibility.
In US Agent Charlie Wax (John Travolta with a bald swimming cap and a Homer Simpson ring of facial fuzz) and French liaison James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) he's found two of his most pointed caricatures, one a boorish, scrupleless all-American meathead and the other a mousy, pencil-moustache-wearing frog with no spine. They complement each other nicely, the one shoveling cocaine up the other's nose while they launch down fire poles like strippers and shoot Pakistani terrorists over bottles of beau vin (red, of course). There's no need for a discernible plot here apart from a "follow that lout and do as he says" logic that makes the film's low-brow humor, which relies largely on a series of quick shocks and loud explosions (lookit that Escalade blow, I mean, go!), blast ahead heedlessly without the aid of truly memorable choreography or fully-formed characters. Morel's finally found his footing, careening forward at a berserker's pace with no sign of stopping. Go man go!
Morel selectively beefs up From Paris with Love's goofy attitude more than its narrative scaffold because he understands that the U.S. vs. them friction between Wax and Reese is the film's real engine. He readily provides enough cursory and even a fair amount of embellishing details in their spats to make an otherwise sloppy actioner a real treat. Reece, the less manly man of the two, is such a wimp that his fiance has to propose to him. When Wax tries to engage his effeminate nerdiness by asking him whether he prefers Kirk or Spock, Reece replies sheepishly "Uhura." Meyers in that sense is deviously well cast, a milquetoast pushover of a supporting actor that frequently plays unmemorable, weak-at-the-knees Don Juans.
Travolta's Wax is his perfect counterpoint, necking with French prostitutes one minute then making a tacky Pulp Fiction joke the next. As with his amped-up performance in Tony Scott's slight but underrated The Taking of Pelham 123 remake, Travolta's inimitable desperation recalls his Face/Off co-star Nicolas Cage's looser, infinitely more self-indulgent performances. He's going far out on a limb here and even if what he's saying doesn't always stick, it feels good to hear him mouth off like he's contracted a steroid-fueled strain of Tourettes. That kind of over-zealous presence is essential to Morel's brand of cinema, one which has only improved with an increased reliance on scene-stealing character actors. Morel's next film will hopefully star Cage as a schizophrenic private investigator that uses his multiple personalities to solve crime. It'll be his best yet.