Sunday, June 20, 2010

Indefensible Film: From Paris with Love (2010)

Many years ago, a friend of mine had an evening of movies that he called "indefensible," basically films he liked for reasons that he could not justify. His films that night: Henry Winkler’s Memories of Me (1988 - starring Allan King and Billy Crystal) and Leni Riefenshahl's Triumph of the Will (1935 - starring Adolph Hitler). After watching both of these films, I concluded only one of them was indefensible, and it wasn't the one featuring the psychopathic Austrian (Riefenstahl's film is a divider for obvious reasons, yet the power of her images and her editing technique cannot be argued with - in fact, I submit that if anybody had really paid attention in 1935 to this awful/brilliant film, perhaps we would have refused to appease the monster and shortened the war by several years or prevented it entirely). On the other hand, Winkler's maudlin melodrama is terrible on many levels, but I guess everybody's entitled to enjoying a film that is nearly universally loathed.

I've got one of my own now that was just released on DVD: Pierre Morel's From Paris With Love (2010). The film is the latest from French filmmaker/producer Luc Besson's factory of gonzo action/adventure films. It's gloriously politically incorrect, outrageously violent, delightfully vulgar, probably sexist and utterly ridiculous on almost every level, and yet I found it refreshingly entertaining because it just doesn't bend to anybody's idea of taste. And who holds this thing all together? John Travolta. More about him in a sec, but first the plot.

James Reese (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is an assistant to the ambassador in the US Embassy in Paris. Besides his menial tasks for his boss, he is also a joe-boy for the CIA/Special Ops who's desperate to be doing something more than putting untraceable license plates on cars and ensuring the weaponry is in the trunk of vehicle the 'real' spies will drive on their assignments in Paris. One evening, he's given the job he thinks he wants: acting as partner for a spy who is having trouble getting through customs at Charles DeGaulle Airport. Travolta, looking like he's having more fun in a movie than he's had in years, plays that spy, Charlie Wax. Wax is a Special Ops lone-wolf who's brought into Paris to stop an Islamic terrorist ring that is planning to attack a conference somewhat similar to the soon-to-be-here-in-Toronto G20. At first the film seems to be a pointless, plotless grade D John Woo shoot 'em up knock off (as my wife said to me about 15 minutes in, "is there a story here?"). After a very violent slaughter in a restaurant where the plot seems to be about taking down a Chinese drug cartel in Paris, the story takes some rather entertaining twists and turns until it finally locks into its 'counter terrorism' storyline. Myers (Henry VIII in the underrated TV series, The Tudors) is also very good playing the 'straight man' to Travolta's bald, probably crazy, willing-to-do-anything-and-shoot-anybody to-achieve-his-ends operative.

Beyond the crackpot violence and great glee it takes at offending anybody with liberal sensibilities, if you've ever visited Paris, this film doesn't disappoint in giving you a great 'visual recap'. It's not called From Paris With Love for nothing, because, forgetting the plot for a second, this is also a visual love letter to the city. The obvious (Eiffel Tower, Pont Neuf, Seine, glimpses of Notre Dame Cathedral) and the unknown (interesting neighbourhoods and streetscapes that aren't on the tourist maps) are all given their fair due as the pic bounces along.

Morel (director of Taken in 2008) has a good eye and is talented at shooting action (what a concept, you know where you are and who's shooting whom and, mostly, why at all times -- rare today in most action movies). He's also good at bringing out things in actors that the actors probably didn't even know were there (Travolta and Myers here, Liam Neeson as the revenge-taking father in Taken). So, ridicule me if you wish for enjoying this anarchic, violent film, but frankly, I don't care.

--David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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