Pierre Morel stages “From Paris With Love”, written by Adi Hasak and Luc Besson, with the usual attention-grabbing elements - car chases, gun fights, explosions, a terrorist plot, betrayal – but doesn’t weave a story that holds your interest. The idea’s there, two night and day characters, Charlie Wax (John Travolta) and James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who join forces in Paris to rout an Asian drug cell that raises arms money for Middle East terrorists but Travolta, especially, and Rhys Meyers are stereotypes that elicit no identification, no empathy. There’s a plot twist that falls flat and a conclusion that falls even flatter. It’s a movie that plugs into current explosive themes but forgets to turn on the switch.
It’s only because of Travolta’s incarnation as an action hero that the movie’s even watchable. His portrayal as a globe-trotting, United States-sponsored one man army hits you at the gut level: his shaved head, his goatee, his etched smile (as if he enjoyed mayhem and destruction), and his physical presence (though we don’t get a sense of his physique: is it muscle, is it blubber?) give him a respectable don’t-mess-with-me swagger. On numerous occasions he wades into rooms and alleys full of thugs armed with machine guns, rifles, baseball bats and dispatches them with alarming if not too-easy aplomb. One thing that’s troublesome: he never seems to take a blow, to almost get shot, to find himself off balance or off-kilter. He seems indestructible but since we don’t know anything about his back story that would give us insight into his character, how he came to this line of work, if he’s had his heart broken, he’s really nothing more than an android whose only weakness, “the one thing that can kill me,” is his affection for Big Macs.
If Travolta is at least interesting to watch, Rhys Meyers comes across as a shadow. Perhaps it’s a good metaphor for a wanna-be spook that’s also the personal assistant to American Ambassador Bennington (Richard Durden), but as a dramatic performance it’s unconvincing. He’s weedy, which is meant to contrast to Travolta’s bulk. He’s whiney, which is meant to set up Travolta’s braggadocio. But his character comes across as a big fat zero who gets submerged by his lead's performance. It’s supposed to be funny, putting a Wally Cox-like character in the company of a character like Wax, to put him into danger, to show him capable of having a lovely French fiancée like Caroline (Kasia Smutniak). But his reaction to a particular act of treachery – the fact that he even got fooled in the first place – rings untrue.
An action movie like this doesn’t need subtle characterization, though it wouldn’t hurt. What it does need are actors who can create credible characters with suitable personal and private motivations to convince us that it’s okay to kill dozens of people, even if they’re trying to kill them as well. This movie lacks those performances. As a drama with a trailing love story, this movie fails on all fronts.