Last year director Pierre Morel unleashed Taken, one of the year’s biggest surprises and box office hits, on unsuspecting audiences. Starring a father wreaking havoc in France’s beloved capital in a mad cap search for his beloved daughter before she’s sold into white slavery, the film delighted audiences with its frenetic pace and nonstop action.
It wasn’t the first time that Morel had unleashed his skills along the Champs-Elysees; his Banlieu 13 (District B13, in the States) was a rousing success, mixing parkour-infused action sequences with wild martial arts fights and high-paced car chases. Combining visual panache with relatively simple, fast-moving plots has been a good formula for Morel so far.
His latest, From Paris with Love, is more of the same. James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is a low-level intelligence official working undercover at the United States embassy in France. New to the job, he’s tasked with nothing more difficult than changing out license plates on the agency’s cars.
That changes when one of the agency’s top assets, Charlie Wax (John Travolta), is shipped to France and partnered with James. A stone-cold killer with a hair trigger and a quick wit, Charlie’s abrasive style doesn’t mesh well with the urbane manner James brings to the job -- think of them as the odd couple with automatic weapons.
Though unclear at first what Charlie is in Paris to stop, it soon becomes apparent that a terrorist plot is afoot and only our two intrepid agents can stop it. How dense the plot runs is anyone’s guess, and Morel does love to keep audiences guessing. If a character is an ally or a loved one, you can be sure something is not quite right.
Unfortunately, From Paris with Love is unable to keep up the pace of Morel’s previous Gallic adventures. This has to do in part with the casting: Whereas Banlieu 13 starred a pair of 30-somethings in tip-top shape and Taken’s Liam Neeson still looks mighty fit for a man in the latter half of his sixth decade, Travolta is a little pudgy. It’s not that he’s unbelievable in close quarters combat, but he does sometimes look a little silly huffing and puffing on rooftops while chasing down bad guys.
This isn’t to say there isn’t much to enjoy here, or that the film doesn’t have a visual grace to it that so many action features today are sorely lacking. It’s simply not quite up to the standard of his previous films, which are models of popcorn entertainment.
There’s also something to be said for the film’s willingness to make the face of international terrorism that of a Muslim extremist. All too often – as with last weekend’s Edge of Darkness – a plot will unravel only to show that the real culprit is either a corrupt member of the United States government, or a black hearted corporation, or some other malevolent Western force in search of filthy lucre.
That willingness to deal in moral absolutes – terrorism bad, killing terrorists good – is one of the reasons that Morel’s films have been such a success. In Taken it was human traffickers, and in Banlieu 13 it was rival drug dealers and corrupt politicians, while the calculus remains roughly the same. Structuring a picture around archetypes will always leave certain critics sniffing about simplistic stories, but sometimes all the audience is looking for is a piece of entertainment, something rousing to get the blood pumping.
Another reason that Morel’s work feels solid is that, of the protégés of Luc Besson, he is the one most likely to treat the work at hand with a serious tone. Besson – the director of The Professional and The Fifth Element – has fashioned a production empire of sorts, imagining stories and overseeing their production while handing the day-to-day duties off to filmmakers steeped in his style. The Transporter series, for example, sprung from his head.
Where Morel excels – and The Transporter films sometimes trip up – is that he understands audiences want at least a modicum of seriousness with their pulpy entertainment. Taken, for example, never lets its audiences forget the deadly seriousness that Neesom’s character takes his given task. My fear headed into From Paris with Love was that Morel was going to fall into the trap that captures so many other directors of B-pictures: The advertisements make the film look like something of a 90 minute, tongue-in-cheek, winking-at-the-audience joke.
There are moments of wry, self-aware humor, for sure; as a whole, however, Morel treats the endeavor at least a little seriously. That should be a lesson to the other B-picture filmmakers out there: It’s no crime to at least pretend that something more serious than a few laughs is at stake.
Sonny Bunch writes about culture and politics at Conventional Folly.