There’s a scene in one of my favorite movies, Kicking and Screaming (the one about post-college ennui, not Will Ferrell screaming at pee-wee soccer players) where one character, Otis, responds to a challenge to name eight movies where a monkey plays a key role. After a few titles, the character played by Carlos Jacott starts running out of ideas and begins making them up: “La Femme Monkita. Carnal Monkeys. Monkeys, Monkeys, Ted and Alice.”
It’s the citing of Monkeys, Monkeys, Ted and Alice that’s the most confusing. That’s because the main character of Kicking and Screaming, Grover, has a father played by Elliott Gould, who, of course, is the Ted of the original film, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. So does that mean that in the world of Kicking and Screaming, Elliott Gould doesn’t exist? Did someone else play Ted, just like the scene in the thoroughly meta Last Action Hero where it turns out that Stallone was in Terminator 2 instead of Arnold?
Such a thought may cross your mind while watching Pierre Morel’s From Paris With Love, when John Travolta’s manically violent Charlie Wax character informs us how much he loves a “Royale With Cheese.” Anyone old enough to see From Paris With Love will get the reference to Pulp Fiction, which makes it even more annoying that the jokey reference is repeated later in the film. So does John Travolta, the person, not exist in the world of From Paris With Love? Why I am thinking about such a piddling distraction during what should be a no-brainer action movie?
Most of the problem stems from writer-producer Luc Besson and his assembly line screenplays.* (For his EuropaCorp production company, he often has 10 productions going at the same time.) Besson never seems to give forethought into how a moment might change an audience’s view of the film as a whole. Instead, it seems that he just thought of it and decided it was cool.
There’s no escaping Besson’s imprimatur, no matter what Morel tries to do to differentiate From Paris With Love. Like Taken, Morel shoots the movie in a blue-grey color scheme and with a much grimmer tone than what the non-stop, over-the-top action would suggest. But all of the other pieces, from the motive-free villains, the heavy misogyny**, the French jingoism, the smidge of Parkour awkwardly wedged in, are straight out of the Besson playbook. Morel even opens From Paris With Love with a shot that opened six or seven of Besson’s directing efforts — a close-up on quickly moving light that eventually reveals itself to be space (The Fifth Element), or a river (Leon, The Big Blue), or a road (La Femme Nikita), or, in this case, a tunnel.
The diversions don’t begin until Travolta’s arrival, which means we have to suffer through Jonathan Rhys Meyers mopey government agent who is dedicated to his girlfriend and just wants him to come home for a nice dinner. Outfitted in a goatee worthy of a 13 year-old growing out his first whiskers, Rhys Meyers (lazily given the character name Reece) spends the entire movie looking exasperated at Travolta’s actions. Reece is always surprised at Travolta’s need to dispatch his enemies with force, no matter how many times it happens (“We’re averaging about one an hour!”). Meyers brings no energy at all to his role; he’s just dead weight, which is a shame because he’s the doppelganger of the now-retired Joaquin Phoenix who could take over the parts that Phoenix might have brought his intense weirdness to.
As for Travolta, his introduction involves him embarrassing himself once again by repeatedly using the word “motherf**ker.” Travolta gives us the wrong impression, because he spends the most of the remainder of From Paris With Love avoiding nudge-nudge self-awareness and mostly shooting people at close range by wielding uzis in each hand while firing them sideways. A lesser man would have broken his wrists from the backfire. But Travolta is King Indestructible here. I’m sure Charlie Wax (Travolta) is some sort of commentary on Americans as uncouth, violent and shoot-first-think-later types, but he’s the whole film.
If anything, From Paris With Love doesn’t go far enough in its ridiculousness, with only Travolta’s firing-a-bazooka-off-a-freeway-bridge scene (after a thrilling and sharply edited sports car vs. station wagon car chase) truly going for broke. Because the movie isn’t believable anyway, why worry about reality at all? A movie like Besson’s Transporter 2 had a “can-you-top-how-dumb-this-is?” freshness to it. And so all the jittery gunfights and roof chases in From Paris With Love are a disappointment.
But we’re in a logic-free zone. As far as we can tell, the “terrorists” Travolta and Rhys Meyers are after want to sell drugs and blow up embassies because they’re pro-AIDS. So there needed to be more moments such as the one where Travolta ignores the fact that Rhys Meyers is being beaten to a pulp by two men, just so he can continue staring out the window through binoculars. That’s kind of how we feel about Rhys Meyers, too.
* In an interview you can read here, Besson states that he just finished the script for Taken 2 “yesterday,” which sort of gives us the hint that his scripts are written in two or three days.
** Women in Besson films are mostly tall, skinny, model types who look like young boys, but with an attitude (Angel-A, La Femme Nikita, Transporter 2, The Fifth Element, etc.). If they aren’t rude and crude, the movie will be about their transformation into an amoral sexpot (Leon, Transporter, Transporter 3, etc.) with violent aspirations. In other words, if women aren’t completely corrupt already, they will be soon.
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