A Royale with Cheese figures prominently in the new French actioner From Paris With Love. Given the presence of John Travolta, the fast-food item serves as a winking allusion to a famous bit of dialogue from Pulp Fiction. Would it be giving the filmmakers too much credit to infer that the Royale with Cheese is just as much a metaphor for the film’s Franco-American intersection at the lowest common denominator?
Probably, yeah. A year on from Liam Neeson’s surprise hit Taken—likewise directed by Pierre Morel from a Luc Besson story—comes an even dumber Paris-set thriller headlined by English-speaking actors. Jonathan Rhys Myers (The Tudors) plays James Reece, an aide to the U.S. ambassador and an aspiring CIA operative. At last given his chance to tackle a full-fledged mission, Reece is partnered with brusque agency superstar Charlie Wax (Travolta). A seemingly screw-loose cannon with a maniacal grin, Wax repeatedly proves he’s crazy like a fox as the odd couple descend ever deeper into a terrorist conspiracy.
After a vain attempt to drum up a rooting interest in Reece—who must temporarily leave behind his hot fiancé Caroline (Kasia Smutniak)—Morel and screenwriter Adi Hasak (Shadow Conspiracy) open the floodgates to a rush of action and “buddy cop” banter. Perhaps it’s enough to satisfy action fans in these dog days of the movie year, but even the target audience (hint: those without a Y chromosome need not apply) is likely to guffaw at, and not with, From Paris with Love.
Most of the trouble rests in the characterization of Reece, who’s purportedly brainy (only evidence: checkmating his boss in a chess match) but decidedly street-dumb and, despite his avowed desire to become a field operative, squeamish when it comes to discharging a firearm. Ho hum. A predictable mid-film plot twist provides fodder for a downright stupid climax, the purported “payoff” for Reece’s “character development” as he proves he’s learned his “training day” lesson from Wax.
Though the action isn’t quite novel enough to make Morel’s latest worthwhile, a few audacious moments establishing Wax’s skills show why Morel is in demand. Assisted again by director of photography Michel Abramowicz and editor Frederic Thoraval, Morel very nearly convinces us that Travolta can shoot his way out of a Chinese restaurant crawling with thugs and, more impressive yet, take down six street gangsters in hand-to-hand combat.
By laughing at brutality and setting up one “kill or be killed” situation after another, Morel cannily plays into the vicarious bloodlust of the Grand Theft Auto generation. One character summarizes the situation when he reflects on the changing times, “It is just as evil, for certain. But it’s a lot less polite.”
A foreign film for guys who hate foreign films (no pesky subtitles), From Paris with Love gets most of its mileage from Travolta’s wild-child CIA agent. His “oo-eeee!” antics here aren’t anything new, but they’re still snappy. If only Morel and Besson would have committed to satirizing, instead of merely exploiting, this superficially cool, destructively cold archetype of American firepower, they could’ve had more than multiplex filler.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]