I admit it; I was excited when the first trailer for From Paris With Love hit the Internet a few months ago. It seemed like such a good idea at the time: B-movie auteur Pierre Morel re-teaming with Luc Besson for a cloak-and-rocket launcher espionage yarn, with a shiny-headed John Travolta munching scenery all the way. And while Morel’s imbecilic spy thriller gets by for about half an hour on the good will accrued by the director’s past successes—namely the entertaining low-rent thrillers District 13 and Taken—it soon becomes apparent that, in some instances, the third time is as far away from charm as it’s possible to get.
The plot—a term that is used here generously and loosely—mainly consists of a string of sloppily conceived and hastily discarded MacGuffins held together with hope and chewing gum. Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors, Velvet Goldmine) stars as James Reece, an ambitious but low-level young CIA operative working as a personal aide to the American ambassador in France. His longing for a more exciting role in the agency is fulfilled when he’s assigned to partner with Special Agent Charlie Wax (Travolta) for some sort of ill-defined, top-secret mission whose objective changes every 10 minutes or so.
Man, these guys sure are mismatched! Reece is a soft-spoken, Cambridge-educated intellectual, hopelessly in love with his beautiful fiancée Caroline (Kasia Smutniak). Wax, on the other hand, is a coke-snorting, trigger-happy sociopath whose job description appears to include shooting every non-white person he encounters. Just imagine the wacky hijinks that ensue when the two are forced into an uneasy partnership that repeatedly pits Reece’s low-key, rational approach against Wax’s preference for getting hopped-up on cocaine and shooting people while screaming racial epithets at them.
Anyway, several violent and mostly random encounters with drug dealers eventually lead the duo to a gaggle of sneering terrorists who, based on the number of times Travolta shouts some variation of “you Pakistani motherf--ker!”, might be from Pakistan. It’s up to Reece and Wax to stop a nefarious plot to blow something up, but they certainly can’t do it if Reece is going to be all circumspect and analytical about things. Can Wax help Reece overcome his nun-like aversion to using narcotics and killing everyone who looks at him? It’s sort of like Training Day, only without the coherent storyline and complex characters. Or the smart script. Or the compelling performances. Wow, I guess it’s nothing like Training Day at all.
In fact, a game of Clue has a more clearly defined and intriguing narrative than From Paris With Love. Entire chunks of the movie have no discernible relationship to other, equally perplexing chunks—which could be forgiven if the film at least sported some impressive action sequences, or managed to entertain in any way at all. It doesn’t. The gunplay, fistfights, and car chases are, at their very best, uninspired and so choppily edited that it’s often impossible to tell what’s going on until the smoke clears. Morel’s direction is unrelentingly dull, and Adi Hasak’s screenplay, based on a story by Besson, is rife with tin-eared dialogue that sounds like it was written by a shut-in who’s read about conversations but never actually heard or participated in one.
Worst of all, though, is the film’s insistence on portraying enthusiastic racism, sexism, and xenophobia as charmingly offbeat character traits. It doesn’t end with Travolta’s character; the filmmakers back up Wax’s equal-opportunity bigotry by populating their movie with one stereotype after the next. Every woman in the film is a prostitute, a mannish bitch, or something far worse; every non-white is a drug dealer, terrorist, or simpering coward. We’re expected to cheer as Wax bloodily dispatches nearly the entire staff of a Chinese restaurant because they might have knowledge that drugs are being sold there; epithets like “towelhead” are intended as punchlines. Sure, it’s just an action movie, and a remarkably inane one at that, but its misanthropy is so unrelenting and boastful that it’s impossible to ignore.
From Paris With Love is aimed at viewers who shoot rats for fun and respect Chuck Norris as a political pundit; anyone else will either be profoundly bored by its lack of anything approaching an interesting moment, or downright disgusted by its mean-spirited world view and closing-scene threat of an impending sequel.