Shooting great, fast-moving close quarters action isn’t easy. There is a lot of choreography and planning involved, a lot of tricky cinematography and most importantly, a lot of hard editing later. And in order to make a close quarters action scene that really pops, a director has to have the right composer to score it with energy and the right actors to give the scene weight. That said, no one is shooting close quarters action right now quite like Pierre Morel.
This is perhaps the crux of the success of his first feature, Taken, which dazzled audiences last year with the unrelenting will of its main character (played by Liam Neeson) to kill anyone and everyone in the path between him and his kidnapped daughter. And it once again comes into play with Morel’s second film, From Paris With Love, which follows a wannabe agent named James Reese (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who has been biding time working as the assistant to the U.S. Ambassador in Paris. And when he finally gets the call, he’s partnered with an over-the-top, no holds barred badass named Charlie Wax (John Travolta). Together, they are set upon a mission to take out a drug organization, or terrorists, or something like that. It doesn’t really matter what they’re going after — what matter is what happens along the way.
As I mentioned, Morel has a knack for close quarters action. He also shows us in From Paris with Love that he is also learning how to blow things up in a way that is, for lack of a better word, very cool. He reminds me of a young Michael Bay, back before all of his action was slow and shiney. Remember back to the days of Bad Boys and The Rock, when Bay’s action sequences were in tight, brutal and breathtaking. That’s where Morel is with this piece of work. He puts his audience right in the action, empties more than a few clips, cooks some fools and continues to show off some really stylish, energetic action in the streets of Paris. Heck, there’s even a little Travolta (stunt double) parkour. I call it Travoltakour, because it’s so foreign and new that it needs a name.
Speaking of Travolta. This is his movie, and it is clear from the moment that Charlie Wax is introduced to us that he’s going to be the catalyst for a lot of pain and agony for the timid, by-the-book Reese. Yet, instead of adhering to the classic clichéd back and forth that usually comes along with this kind of relationship, Wax and Reese are given no time to explore their partnership. They are simply there to do things. Charlie Wax, more specifically, exists in the second act of this film to do things. And by do things, I mean kill people. 26 in 24 hours, he explains later, so about one per hour. It is a narrative element that allows this film to follow that same unrelenting pace of Taken, even though the tone of the story is completely different. Where Taken was a tale of anger and vengeance, this story is simply about what Wax is and what Wax isn’t. What he is is completely over-the-top, charismatic, crass and at all times unpredictable (right up to the end). What he isn’t is a the same completely over-the-top, charismatic, crass and at all times unpredictable character you’ve seen before. Thanks to a wild performance from Travolta, one filled with nuance (yes, nuance), Wax is a character who is interesting to the bone. Sure, he shoots a lot of people, but he’s also got a layer of super-spy in there somewhere, ever calculating his next move — this is something that seems lost on his partner, but is never lost on the audience.
The problems with this movie are those you’d expect. It does trade intelligence for action beats, and is riddled with some of the worst dialogue you’ve seen on screen in a while. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the script by Luc Besson and Adi Hasak was about 30-pages long and read terribly. It’s as if the script had as many holes in it as the bad guys. Some of Jon Rhys Meyers’ dialog is crippling, and it will almost have you believing that he isn’t that good of an actor, despite the fact that we know him to be a very good, very serious actor. But somehow, we’re made to not care about that.
Somehow those problems aren’t enough to drag this movie through the muck. I’m not ashamed to say that it was a blast, thanks to Travolta’s clearly unhinged, but calculated insanity. He’s a fun partner to have on this bullet-riddled, testosterone-infused romp through Paris. And thanks to Pierre Morel’s keen eye for keeping us close to the action, and keeping the action moving at all times, this movie is a quick in and out. It enters, as Wax does, with a flurry of action and ends just the same.
The Upside: A blistering pace, a certifiable performance from Travolta and a delicious body count.
The Downside: Dialog that was written with action beats in mind, a simple narrative and a turn that is telegraphed early on.
On the Side: The film includes a very funny call-back to Pulp Fiction‘s ‘Royale with Cheese’ scene. It sounds like it wouldn’t work, but it does.