Wednesday, June 30, 2010

605 - From Paris with Love review

If you hit a lot of the same websites I do, you'd have noticed over the past year that elements of the American right have latched onto the (largely silly) notion that European leaders are beginning to act more conservatively than our own, a sort of ironic meme designed to highlight the Obama administration's alleged financial idiocy. But what I've now noticed is that the two most conservative mainstream American films in years were both written and directed by Frenchman. It sounds like a joke, but as of "From Paris with Love," directed by Pierre Morrel and written by Luc Besson (as well as Adi Hasak) it's the plain truth.

Whereas "Taken" unabashedly lashed out in favor of morals almost universally associated with this side of the pond's conservatives (the value of violent action over bureaucratic wrangling, vengeance wrapped in purpose, and even sexual prudence), "From Paris with Love" engages the contemporary war on terror, a conflict that puts all at risk by virtue of its lack of borders. The contrarian Armond White is right when he declares this more politically astute than either "Syriana" or "The Hurt Locker," and it's easily the most intelligently constructed piece of American culture on terrorism since the middle years of "24."

John Travolta leads the film's charge as Charlie Wax, a bald, hulking badass and exterminator of terrorists. One of Travolta's strengths as an actor is that he knows how to appear like he's goofing off when in reality it's all a show with a purpose. The catch is that he knows that these characters, usually villains, enjoy the acting part. His foil and pic's protagonist is James Reese (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), an aid to the American ambassador in France who doubles as a CIA flunkie, planting bugs and swapping out license plates. When the two get paired up in order to track and annihilate a cell of Pakistani suicide bombers, the action unfolds in a series of gunfights and kung-fu exchanges that are all rollicking yet efficient fun. Morrel's knack for action has strengthened since "Taken," with the gun fights transforming carnage into clarity, photographed with a eye for modulated flash and speed.

While the lead of "Taken" showed us a sort of secret agent hero (played by Liam Neeson) much comparable to Jack Bauer, "From Paris with Love" features a similarly invulnerable spy whose allegiances to good and country are the same but whose psyche has done a 180. What if Bauer, instead of being a family man whose deeds have shaded his soul a dark hue, were a globe-trotting loner who took pleasure from his exploits? The filmmakers (as well as Travolta) have done magnificent work here, tweaking the better action archetypes produced by the past ten years into something fresh. Striking about a film that is in fact so political is that skilled filmmaking nonetheless makes the picture enjoyable across all sorts of partisan boundaries; just as an excellent left-wing film such as "Robocop" can be enthralling to conservatives, it's not so much the message as the delivery that counts. This film's underachievement at the box office is a shame, because we need more action films like this and far fewer like "The Green Zone."

4 out of 5

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