After District B13, what with its thrillingly abstract sense of movement, manipulation of action tropes, and socio-cultural fixations, it was tempting to announce Pierre Morel as the true heir to Luc Besson B-movie kingdom. Then came the shaky Taken, a rote revenge narrative that was unquestionably emboldened by Morel’s conflation of the psychic and the physical as a man struggled with his conscience on his empathetic road to save his daughter from kidnappers. Now we have From Paris with Love, which finds the director settling for routine and going through the motions: A U.S. ambassador’s personal aide, James Reese (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), yearns to be part of special ops, and after impressing his boss with his commitment and quick skills (when his chewing gum fails him, he ingeniously uses a stapler to stick a bug to the bottom of a desk), he receives a crash course in blowing shit up from his new partner, special agent Charlie Wax (John Travolta).
The title is ironic, as Paris is transformed from City of Love to City of Bloodlust, and it portends a series of role reversals scattered throughout the film, none more fascinating than James’s girlfriend popping the question because she feels he never will. There are some surprising betrayals, and a comic-grotesque climb up a spiral staircase toward a Chinese druglord’s lair is prismatically staged, with Wax dealing with his enemies like an ogre eats mutton, tossing bodies over his head as if they were discarded bones, but the action sequences otherwise feel recycled from better films (Face/Off comes naturally and repeatedly to mind), and unlike District B13 and Taken, nothing ever feels at stake, or tested, other than James’s caginess about shooting to kill—and of his own volition.
Meyers is credibly grave, most notably in a scene where he catches his reflection in a mirror and assesses the blood splatter on his face, but he seems unhinged from the project. Morel, who once seemed interested in expressing the reality of street life throughout Paris’s subcultures, settles for unimaginatively and unquestioningly linking all of the city’s minorities in a web of crime from cocaine-dealing to terrorism. But the real insult here may be that Wax’s behavior never scans as a comment on America’s post-9/11 aggression and sense of entitlement. It’s all jokey, empty-headed signs and bluster, what with the man’s meant-to-be-badass facial hair, insatiable lust for hookers and cocaine, a one-is-too-much Karate Kid reference, and an expected Pulp Fiction nod that rather nicely sums up what’s wrong with From Paris with Love: It’s more cheese than royale.