What was he thinking? This seems to be the question that eluded Pierre Morel, director of “From Paris With Love.” With his third feature in ten years, Morel seems intent on creating an aura of mystery for himself. He refuses to answer questions in interviews about his motivations, and when the interviews are conducted in his native French, he does not allow his words to be subtitled for non-French speakers. Though I am loathe to admit it, Morel’s antics intrigue me. As I watched “From Paris With Love,” the sprawling, undisciplined nature of the film’s themes made me increasingly interested in how Morel would explain his genre-bending style.
“From Paris With Love” is an action film about a personal aide to an U.S. Ambassador in France. However, what James Reece, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, really wants to do is to work for the C.I.A. He finally gets his chance when he is asked to be the driver of the semi-autonomous secret agent Charlie Wax (John Travolta). James has built his career by playing it by the book, and he’s thrown for a loop by the gun-happy, axiom-spitting Charlie. James questions the wisdom behind Charlie’s actions, only to find that Charlie knows what he’s doing. In his role as apprentice-cum-sidekick, James gradually learns more about what his mission entails, as well as his own inner nature.
Between its plot and the actors’ delivery (“Nail this job and consider yourself a part of the club,” says James’ unseen C.I.A. correspondent, while Charlie Wax tells the gangs he shoots up to “Wax on, wax off”), “From Paris With Love” so embraces cliché that it almost becomes tongue-in-cheek. Indeed, a lot of the movie finds humor in appropriating the hokey reality of action movies such as “Rush Hour.” There are one-liners making fun of the American perception of the French—at one point, Travolta even paraphrases his character from “Pulp Fiction,” saying dramatically, “Everyone has got their vice. And my vice is: a Royale with cheese.”
The movie is a mix of action, comedy, policier, and of course, romance. Many movies try to cross genre boundaries to reach a larger audience, and Morel is no exception. But his approach is confused, and given the seriousness of one thematic element it tries to weave in—that of terrorism and suicide bombings—that confusion proves detrimental to the film as a whole.
As James discovers, the drug-busting mission they set out on is really a mission to trace the money back to a circle of Pakistani terrorists. These Pakistanis are the center of a labyrinth of cocaine and prostitution, and hang around with explosive vests on their tables. Furthermore, their plot is to infiltrate the U.S. Embassy with explosives hidden beneath their burqas.
Given the racial profiling going on in America against Arabs, and more relevantly, the current controversy regarding burqas in France, this plot development is a sensitive one that deserves to be handled with care, and it’s here that the mixture of comedy and action becomes a problem. The comedy seems to sound at the wrong points; Charlie’s unerring deductions seem a testament to defamatory racial stereotypes. The only attempt to bring attention to the fact that the Pakistanis in the film should not be judged as a group happens during a dinner party. Charlie pulls a gun on the friend of James’ girlfriend when she answers the phone, and the girlfriend screams that just because her friend is Pakistani doesn’t mean that she’s a terrorist. Unfortunately, this temperance is undermined, because in this case she is.
The ease of ethnic categorization in this movie provides undertones. But then again, maybe Morel wasn’t thinking of that. Heavy issues aside, “From Paris With Love” is a formulaic but quirky film, with funny bits and lots of explosions. Just be happy Charlie isn’t working in an airport.
—Staff writer Rebecca A. Scheutz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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