No one will mistake FROM PARIS WITH LOVE for a classic. The story is just so many set pieces that hang together by the most delicate of gossamer threads. Yet, they are set pieces that show off the best of stars John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, while allowing director Pierrel Morel to indulge in mayhem, intrigue, and the occasional, nicely calibrated, fits of whimsy.
Meyers is James Reece, an American in Paris employed by his country’s embassy to take care of the piddling details that make the wheels of diplomacy run smoothly. He’s got the gift: clear-thinking, methodical, meticulous, and cool under pressure. He’s the ambassador’s darling, but what he really wants is to be a spy, the which he pursues by undertaking the sort of piddling details that make the wheels of espionage run smoothly. His big break comes when he’s asked at the last minute to get an agent through customs and partner up with him for a super secret mission. The agent is Charlie Wax (Travolta), and it’s just as well that Reece hasn’t been briefed. Wax can only be experienced, not explained. So with a full heart and bit of a swagger, he takes leave of his suitably vixenish French girlfriend, Caroline (Kasia Smutniak), even though she is right in the middle of her proposing to him.
During the course of the next two days, Reece will be befuddled, beaten, dumbfounded, drugged-up and otherwise turned upside down and inside out as Wax acrobatically disposes of the bad guys with an alarming frequency while giving Reece pep talks about stepping up to the game. The game, alas, is not what it seems, and changes from minute to minute with only Wax seeming to know what’s going on.
It doesn’t matter. This is a pure action film with a buddy sub-plot in which the two opposites find detente, if not rapport. Wax, burly, loud, and introduced to the audience while hurling obscenities at the customs official who refuses to let him bring an energy drink into France, is never at a loss and never without a smile even then, or later, when pounding an Asian gang to a pulp, or coaching Reece on how to look less like a low-level government functionary. He shows the same focused dedication to finding breakfast as he does to taking a bazooka to a fleeing villain. Reece, fluent in Mandarin, French, German, and protocol serves as the conscience of the pair, traipsing after Wax while avoiding the bodies that fly in Wax’s wake. Travolta’s gleeful affability and Rhys Meyers natural intensity, evident even at Reese’s most confused, makes for an intrinsically watchable pairing. It’s Rhys Meyers who adds the depth as it finally sinks in for Reece what this espionage business that he longs to take part in actually entails. He finds a fresh take in an otherwise hackneyed moment when Reece looks in a mirror at the blood on his face put there by yet another violent interlude. It’s Travolta that insures that the adrenalin continues pumping by keeping the audience in genuine suspense, not about his coming out of any situation with nary a scratch, but with how he’s going to do it, when he’s going to strike, who will be the target, and the exact nature of the hurt he will be putting on that target when he does.
The script, co-authored by Luc Besson, is peppered not just with nicely realized action sequences, but also with observations about the origins of egg fu young, how to determine the place in the distribution chain a sample cocaine is, and the devolution of manners in the underworld. FROM PARIS WITH LOVE is not meant to be taken at more than face value, and for all the silliness it purveys, it’s a popcorn flick that wants nothing more than to entertain.