What movie features John Travolta as a gunslinger with a startling hairstyle who craves a “Royale with cheese” – i.e., a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with cheese?
If you answered “Pulp Fiction,” you’re only half right. In the new thriller “From Paris With Love,” Travolta, playing an unscrupulous CIA special agent, sports a shaved head. He also has a nasty goatee. Despite the obvious in-joke references to “Pulp Fiction,” Travolta’s leather-jacketed, bling-festooned look here mostly reminded me of his biker baddie in “Wild Hogs,” not a movie I wish to be reminded of.
Without Travolta’s Charlie Wax cavorting about Paris shooting off his guns – and his mouth – this movie would be much the poorer. It’s pretty poor anyway. I realize logic doesn’t play a central role in movie narratives anymore, especially in thrillers, but “From Paris With Love” lowers the bar, and then some. This is the kind of movie where the only reason things happen is because it says so in the script. Example: When an American diplomat in a motorcade is told that a security threat necessitates a change of itinerary, she haughtily vetoes the idea – and runs right into an ambush. In these kinds of movies, common sense is always trumped by big explosions.
Wax’s counterpart is James Reese (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a personal aide to the US ambassador to France, who has a lissome French girlfriend (Kasia Smutniak) and moonlights as a low-level CIA errand boy. Wax’s arrival is Reese’s first senior-level assignment, and before long, the two are waist-deep in corpses. (“Wax’s playbook is a bit unorthodox,” Reese is warned.) But since this is a movie about squelching a terrorist plot, director Pierre Morel, working from a screenplay by Adi Hasak based on a story by the omnipresent Luc Besson, has no qualms about upping the carnage count. His film is simultaneously timely and sleazy. The timeliness is intended to buy off the sleaziness. (I’m not buying.)
Even if you’re not very good at figuring out plots, “From Paris With Love” won’t crease your thinking cap. When Reese’s too-perfect girlfriend slips her late father’s wedding ring on his finger, you can see what’s coming a kilometer away. The big tip-off: She proposes to him. This is just not the way things are done in France.
Rhys Meyers is always better when he’s playing heels, as in “Match Point” and TV’s “The Tudors,” and here he’s just too nice. I realize the niceness is meant to contrast with Wax’s shoot-first-ask-questions-later belligerence, but the counterpoint feels forced, as if the filmmakers were setting up a new “Lethal Weapon”-style buddy franchise. Just what we don’t need.
Amid all the mayhem, there is Paris in all its faded-light glory. Is the movie worth seeing as a travelogue? Only if you are (a) a masochist, (b) a terrorist, or (c) desperate. Grade: C- (Rated R for strong bloody violence throughout, drug content, pervasive language, and brief sexuality.)