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DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Luc Besson is probably best known for directing "La Femme Nikita" in 1990. But in the last two decades, he has also presided over the hugely successful production company Europa Corp, which makes such action hits as "The Transporter," "District 13," and "Taken." Europa Corp's latest film is "From Paris With Love" and stars John Travolta as a freewheeling American operative and Jonathan Rhys Myers as his reluctant sidekick.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: 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 act unilaterally, without regard for 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.

Last year's "Taken," directed by Besson's former cinematographer Pierre Morel; stars Liam Neeson as an ex-CIA spook whose teenage daughter gets snatched in Paris by Albanian sex slavers. Since the French are all apathetic or corrupt, it falls to Neeson to beat up, torture, and take out wave after wave of Albanians, and Arabs and other scummy thugs. The fantasy might be primitive, but "Taken" is 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 a prissy diplomat named 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 bring energy drinks into the country cans that, as he later reveals to Reece in their car, carry hidden contents with more kick than caffeine.

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Mr. JONATHAN RHYS MYERS (Actor): (as James Reece) You know that really wasnt necessary back there?

Mr. JOHN TRAVOLTA (Actor): (as Charlie Wax) Yeah, I know. I just like sticking it to these self-righteous little (bleep). Think just because they got a badge and a uniform they can lord over us civilians any time the mood strikes them.

Mr. RHYS MYERS: (as James Reece) And you know we can probably get that drink in any supermarket?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (as Charlie Wax) Yeah, I know that too.

Mr. RHYS MYERS: (as James Reece) So what's the big deal over some corn syrup, caffeine and water?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (as Charlie Wax) Well, the big deal is my secret ingredient which I can not take the chance that they would find out about.

Mr. RHYS MYERS: (as James Reece) You mean everything back there was...

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (as Charlie Wax) You didnt get that?

Mr. RHYS MYERS: (as James Reece) You know I'm authorized to get you any weapon you want?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (as Charlie Wax) Yeah, but not like this one. Because me and Mrs. Jones, (singing) we got a thing going on. Till death do us part.

Mr. EDELSTEIN: Travolta is a wonder. 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 fight 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 become 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 than Woo, and a keener eye; his fastest, most kinetic shots flow together like frames in a flipbook.

But Morel's drollest scene in From "Paris With Love" represents the art of holding back. 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 Reece that diplomacy is fine, but there's no substitute for training, knowledge and guts for sheer mastery.

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 fired me up the way it did.

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 of Kathryn Bigelow's great "The Hurt Locker." They make you remember how spectacularly cool it was before reality got in the way.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

You can download Podcast of our show at freshair.npr.org. You can follow us on Facebook and find us on Twitter at nprfreshair.

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

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BIANCULLI: Defense attorney David Dow goes back and forth between two worlds: Death row, where his clients live, and home, where he tries to protect his young son from his work. The majority of men David Dow defends are guilty, but he tries to save them from execution.

On the next FRESH AIR, we talk with Dow about his new memoir "The Autobiography of an Execution."

Join us for the next FRESH AIR.

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