John Travolta as FBI agent Charlie Wax
Jonathan Rhys Meyers as James Reece / Richard Stevens
Kasia Smutniak as Caroline
Amber Rose Revah as Nichole
Melissa Mars as Wax’s Hooker
Farid Elouardi as Le barbu
Richard Durden as Ambassador Bennington
Chems Dahmani as Rasheed
Directed by Pierre Morel
What might have been a fairly standard buddy comedy is elevated by a hilariously irreverent performance by Travolta and Morel’s knack for creating exciting action pieces.
James Reese (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is a man leading a double life, working as an aide to the American Ambassador in Paris and as an undercover special agent for the U.S. government. When his supervisors team him with their wild car field agent, former mercenary Charlie Wax (John Travolta), the two of them go on a mad dash across Paris trying to take down a terrorist ring while Reese tries to keep his cover from being blown by Wax’s outlandish antics.
Continuing the partnership of producer Luc Besson and director Pierre Morel that produced three great Paris-based action flicks, “From Paris With Love” is more of a straight-ahead buddy action comedy taking place in the world of modern espionage. It’s not nearly as groundbreaking as some of Besson’s previous forays into odd pairings, but it still offers enough laughs and and action to make up for it.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ character, a government aide sporting glasses and a goatee, is introduced during his day job, using his Cambridge-trained brain to remain one step ahead of his boss, the U.S. Ambassador to France, while also doing undercover ops for the government. From the opening, you might think we’re in for one of those very proper British spy thrillers from the ’50s or ’60s, the kind where Rhys Meyers’ role might be played by Michael Caine back in the day. Unfortunately, Meyers doesn’t have nearly as strong a screen presence, and it’s not until John Travolta’s Charlie Wax enters the picture when all bets are called off as we’re transported back to ’90s for edgy humor that harks back to movies like “Lethal Weapon” and “Die Hard.”
After Wax finagles his cache of energy drinks through customs, the duo goes for lunch at a Chinese restaurant, which quickly turns into the first of many shootouts as they proceed to face Chinese gangs, hoodlum drugdealers and eventually a Pakistani terrorist ring that’s targeted Reese as a way to get their suicide bombers into an important government function.
Most of the laughs come from this clearly mismatched couple with perpetual entertainment coming from Wax playing off Reese’s reticence to get his hands dirty, all the while carrying around a large Chinese vase filled with cocaine and trying to keep up with Wax. It’s somewhat of an uneven two-hander, because Travolta gets most of the laughs from his foul mouthed one-liners and erratic behavior, shooting anyone they meet and making references to his days working with John Woo, as well as a fairly blatant nod to “Pulp Fiction.”
Morel doesn’t spend nearly as much establishing the characters as in “Taken,” the majority of it being used to establish the relationship between Reese and his beautiful French-Muslim fiancée Caroline, played by Kasia Smutniak. Rhys Meyers’ American accent is a little bit off-putting especially when things start heating up and he sounds a lot like Leonardo DiCaprio, but what he brings to the movie is a fleshed-out character with a satisfactory character arc. Some might feel let-down by how little we know about Wax’s background by comparison.
Just when you’re enjoying the inherent laughs in the pairing, things start to get serious with a jarring twist handled in a way you might not see coming and leading to a third act that spirals towards its obvious conclusion, getting further and further away from trying to maintain any sort of plausibility and even turning somewhat silly.
For the most part, it’s a great looking movie with lots of stylish camerawork, Morel’s background as a cinematographer still very prominently on display, and he creates a glossier-looking Paris than the grittiness of either of his previous movies. His skills at creating exciting action pieces often makes up for any shortcomings in the storytelling. The sight of Travolta hanging out of an economy car with a rocket launcher racing down the highway is exactly why we love the movies grandfathered by Luc Besson even if it far too often breaks into shootouts or an explosions when it has nothing else to show for itself.
That aside, those who enjoy the quirky pairing of Rhys Meyers and Travolta should be satisfied with the franchise potential for more movies placing the oddly-paired duo in similarly dangerous situations.