As personal assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to France, James Reese (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) can keep himself in well-tailored suits and keep his terrific-looking kittenish girlfriend (Kasia Smutniak) in a nice Paris apartment. This is the basis for director Pierre Morel's delicate study in transatlantic manners, From Paris With Love, a work that recalls middle-period Henry James — I kid. Anyhow, James longs for some more adventurous way to serve his country; while waiting to be approved for serious covert operations, he plays at spy, doing odd clandestine jobs such as planting a microchip in a French diplomat's office for some mysterious "Sir" who rings him up for favors. If you wonder why James is planting microchips in a French diplomat's office — if you question anything, in fact — this is not your movie.
James's big break comes when he's called up to chaperone a top American field agent in Paris on business, Charlie Wax. Wax, first encountered delivering a crotch bump and a "Checkmate, muthafucka" as a goodbye to French airport security, is a husky, goateed 55-year-old butch dude dressed up in a keffiyeh and other Urban Outfitters gear, with a Mr. Clean bald pate and earrings. A shoo-in part for John Travolta — most recently seen shouting "Lick my bunghole!" in that Pelham 1 2 3 remake and making a truly stupefying music video with his daughter for the Old Dogs soundtrack — here in all his compellingly horrible jivey splendor.
We've heard the line "I'll admit, his playbook is a bit unorthodox" as often as we've seen an uptight bureaucrat like Reese teamed with a loose cannon like Wax; From Paris lays down the premise and gets hustling. Reese cringes while mentor Wax mows down the immigrant populations of Paris, from the 13th arrondissement Chinatown to the "Raghead" and "Paki" HLM slums, leaving a trail of the extravagantly killed and all-in-good-fun epithets of Don Rickles vintage. (Blazing through a Chinese drug den: "How many more of them you think there are?" "Last census? About a billion.") It could be a film for French Jean-Marie Le Pen voters to love — except there are very few signs that a great Caucasian Gallic people had ever inhabited this shoot-'em-up playground, now but a scenic backdrop for U.S. anti-terror maneuvers. The native tongue is barely heard; beyond an Eiffel Tower rendezvous, little advantage is taken from locations; Smutniak, a Pole, plays the only putatively French major character. Humor revolves around the two things most Americans know about les francaises: a) We "saved their asses in WWII," and b) they like to have sex.
Morel and producer Luc Besson once again glorify the brutal-efficient unilateral Yankee abroad (sometimes played by Irishmen) with his "very particular set of skills"—or at least show faith in his enduring box-office potential. (Wax's particular skills are being deployed, incidentally, to foil a terrorist suicide-bomb assassination.) Beyond its self-conscious silliness — Rhys Meyers does an entertaining coked-up act — and screwball pace, From Paris offers some rather grim lessons in its few get-serious slowdowns. We learn along with callow, trigger-shy James to take no prisoners and to never, ever trust a woman: When there's a terrorist plot afoot, cherchez la femme.
Morel's action pieces — spark-showering gunfights, Travolta neutralizing an entire gang of toughs with his bare fists, a rooftop chase, a bazooka on the freeway, all generally set to chugging badass guitar — are nothing to place him in the upper echelon of action directors, but at least he brings in lobotomized entertainment at ninety-odd minutes. During the February doldrums, this cannot be underestimated.