'Love' American Style: In Paris, Travolta Takes Names

John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys Meyers

In From Paris With Love, John Travolta plays a CIA agent sent to Paris to stop a terrorist attack. Jonathan Rhys Meyers (right) plays his diplomat partner. Rico Torres hide caption

itoggle caption Rico Torres

From Paris With Love

  • Director: Pierre Morel
  • Genre: Action
  • Running Time: 92 minutes
Rated R for strong bloody violence throughout, drug content, pervasive language and brief sexuality.

With: John Travolta, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Kasia Smutniak, and Richard Durden

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, France became the most outspoken European critic of "American exceptionalism" — the idea that the U.S., with its cowboy diplomacy, can and should act unilaterally, without regard for quaint international law. So it's quite a surprise that one of France's most successful filmmakers, Luc Besson, has made a new career producing and co-writing Paris-set action movies that celebrate take-no-prisoners American machismo.

Take last year's Taken, directed by Besson's former cinematographer Pierre Morel; it starred Liam Neeson as an ex-CIA spook whose teenage daughter got snatched in Paris by Albanian sex slavers. Since the French were all apathetic or corrupt, it fell to Neeson to beat up, torture, and take out wave after wave of Albanians, Arabs and other scummy thugs. The fantasy might have been primitive, but Taken was the filet mignon of meathead-vigilante movies, with Neeson stripped down to pure, righteous, patriarchal American genius.

Now, Besson and director Morel are back with an even bigger and badder American macho fantasy called From Paris with Love, starring John Travolta with a bald dome and a wispy goatee as Charlie Wax, a gonzo but — as it turns out — unbelievably proficient terrorist hunter. Like Neeson in Taken, Travolta's Wax has no patience with prissy bureaucrats or diplomatic niceties, so naturally Besson and Morel pair him with prissy diplomat James Reece, played by Jonathan Rhys Myers. There's nearly an international incident when Wax arrives at the airport and browbeats a French customs agent into letting him carry energy drinks into the country — cans that, as he reveals to Reece in the car, have a lot more kick than caffeine.

Travolta is revitalized. Sure, he's beefy — he isn't the first actor to spring to mind in connection with lightning reflexes. But he's souped-up and limber and elated by his own Zen prowess, and the choreography and editing of his fights scenes are so expert that I never detected the substitution of stuntmen. Like Taken, From Paris With Love moves at warp speed — it's barely 90 minutes, a nice change from most bloated modern action pictures — and there isn't a wasted shot. In scene after scene, hordes of terrorists turn into blood-spurting pinwheels that hit the ground the instant you manage to breathe out. Your exhalations become gasps of amazement.

Morel will inevitably be compared to director John Woo, but I think he's better. He has fewer mannerisms and a keener eye; his fastest, most kinetic shots flow together like frames in a flipbook. When he interrupts that flow for a snatch of slow motion, you see the lyricism of a warrior at full extension or the floppy-limbed contortions of a body flung to its doom.

But Morel's drollest scene in From Paris With Love represents the art of taking away. Travolta bursts through a door at the top of a circular staircase while Rhys Myers waits below; the camera stays with him as one body after another sails or bounces or crunches past. Travolta's Wax teaches Rhys Myers' Reece that diplomacy is fine, but there's no substitute for guts and style.

It can be argued that From Paris With Love is simple-minded and formulaic, and that Besson and Morel are pandering to an American audience that can't win the War on Terror in reality and so clings to juvenile fantasies. I might have argued that, too, if the film hadn't made me feel so elated.

Maybe because they're French, Besson and Morel can celebrate the archetype of the gonzo American warrior without guilt — or the kind of grim psychological frame at work in Kathryn Bigelow's great The Hurt Locker. They make it so clear why everyone is seduced by that archetype — even those of us who wish the would-be Charlie Waxes weren't, in the real world, often as hapless as Charlie the Tuna.

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