A contemptible action-thriller that turns the threat of terrorism into a shallow, artificially self-important aside to exploitative carnage and gags, "From Paris with Love" is always either taking itself too lightly or too seriously. There's no middle ground with it, but there is a whole lot to thoroughly dislike about what director Pierre Morel (2009's "Taken
") and screenwriter Adi Hasak have devised. Interest only occasionally flags during the goings-on, but that is because one can scarcely believe what he or she is seeing as the body count zooms past slasher film levels; all of the female characters are, bar none, portrayed as suicide bombers, bitches or prostitutes; and pretty much every ethnic minority is treated as soulless, one-note troublemakers and evildoers whose only purpose is to get shot, stabbed, maimed or blown up.
James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) spreads out his time as personal aide to France's U.S. ambassador Bennington (Richard Durden) and as a secret agent who helps to ensure the embassy's national security. When James is paired with Charlie Wax (John Travolta), a top operative with a few screws loose, it is as much a match as oil and water. Urged by Bennington to let his new partner take the lead, Charlie proceeds to guide James on a whirlwind tour of the darker corners of the city, leaving a trail of bodies and cocaine (which they liberally partake in) behind them. Ultimately, the slim plot boils down to the discovery that a terrorist mole, who may be closer to them than either thinks, has plans to crash the African Aid Summit and take the lives of some very prominent politicians.
"From Paris with Love" comes off as racist, sexist and terribly insensitive to both human life and topical subject matter. As far as one can tell, the first seventy-five percent of the picture has nothing to do with the final quarter, merely an excuse to follow the two lead characters around as James mows down a back-alley Asian gang, all but one of the inhabitants in a Chinese restaurant, Pakistani apartment residents, dark-complexioned women, et. al, while snorting coke from a vase in clear public view. Director Pierre Morel does not treat any of the antagonists and victims as actual people, their only purpose to be killed to the reactive sound of violence-lusting audience cheers. Meanwhile, we are supposed to fall in love with Charlie Wax, an unconscionable murderer who keeps a smile on his face as he takes lives, bangs hookers, does drugs, kisses a gun he nicknames "Mrs. Jones," and even references "Pulp Fiction" by name-dropping "a royale with cheese." By the end, he has saved a few lives but taken far more than that without facing any consequences. Suddenly, he and James are pals by the end, all is forgotten, and they more or less walk into the sunset together trading jokey barbs.
As the wishy-washy James Reece, Jonathan Rhys Meyers (2007's "August Rush
") is vastly overshadowed by an unsightly, god-awful mustache that changes shape from scene to scene and makes him look like the copycat younger brother of John Waters. The mustache, in fact, is so ill-advised that it often distracts from all else on the screen. As the tough-talking, bald-headed Charlie Wax, John Travolta (2009's "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
") sneers, jokes and generally chews up the scenery. He looks great holding a missile launcher while hanging out the window of a car speeding furiously down a busy city street, but is he likable? Not a chance. That the character is positioned to endear himself to the viewer is insulting.
Overflowing with clichés, "From Paris with Love" features everything from fish tanks being busted during a restaurant shootout to come-on lines like this humdinger from James' fiancée Caroline (Kasia Smutniak): "Why don't we skip dinner and go straight to dessert?" The dialogue is petrifying in its inanity, and so is Charlie's ability to avert bullets for an entire movie that boils down to ninety minutes of guns firing at him. The climax, taut but ridiculous, aims for sincere melodramathe name "Caroline," uttered in the French pronunciation, is repeated to such a ridiculous degree that it approaches parodybut only earns laughter and ridicule. "From Paris with Love" is disposable, all right, but the film's negative, narrow-minded opinion of anyone who isn't a Caucasian American is truly disturbing. Despite the title, the City of Light gets no love here.