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Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2010

From Paris With Love

John Travolta’s killing spree

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The last time we saw John Travolta, he was the grinning sociopath who hijacked the subway in The Taking of Pelham 123. He continues to burnish his reputation as a cartoon-size bad man in From Paris With Love, this time as a good bad man. As the grinning sociopath called Charlie Wax, Travolta plays a bullet-headed, bulletproof American agent whose war on terrorism is so out of bounds that no agency could possibly claim him as its own. But like any good Hollywood action hero, he gets the job done.

From Paris With Love is also a stock odd-couple buddy picture, pairing the pedal-to-the-metal Wax with a cautious sidekick, Reese (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), an aid to the U.S. ambassador in Paris. Wax has brawn to burn, but occasionally Reese’s brains come in handy—like when Wax needs someone to translate his death threat to a Chinese drug lord. Meyers plays capably; Reese is a sensitive soul with a patina of sophistication, a sexy French girlfriend and the ambition to be accepted in the cloak-and-dagger domain of special operations.

Working with Wax is Reese’s big chance. But Travolta’s motor-mouthed agent, who can kill a dozen men to the beat of a turbo metal soundtrack without cracking a sweat, is more than Reese was prepared for. In one scene, Reese stares pensively at his own blood-splattered reflection in the mirror. The twitch of conscience passes altogether too quickly as the bumbling attaché learns the spy trade in a bonkers, whirlwind killing spree on the streets of Paris.

From Paris With Love includes a couple of nods to Hitchcock, but director Pierre Morel is more the prince of surprise than the master of suspense. The plaster-shattering firefight on the dark floor of a mannequin factory looks cool, but can’t hold a candle to its inspiration, the fun-house gun battle in Orson Welles’ Lady From Shanghai. The real problem with From Paris With Love is not its pastiche of cinematic influences, but a preposterously stupid plot reveling in carnage, xenophobia, fiery explosions and squealing tires.

The best thing about From Paris With Love, aside from its brevity, is Travolta, who tears into his super-sized role with gusto. He’s having a great time as a grinning sociopath cutting a swath of destruction in the name of battling radical jihad and its allies. He looks like a gangbanger, but loves Tony Bennett’s rendition of the old Carpenters hit “Close to You.” He’s a character, all right.