'From Paris With Love': Bullet Time, By Kurt Loder

John Travolta, nonstop.

It's a measure of the fleet wit with which it was crafted that "From Paris with Love" offers us a scene in which John Travolta, the film's star, is shown chowing down on a "Royale with cheese." True, we are in France; but we're far, far away from the antic world of Quentin Tarantino. The scene sits there on the screen like a cold Whopper that nobody wanted.

The movie is a mess beyond all the usual bullet storms and flying bodies that enliven most modern action flicks. The disarray begins with the nonsensical story, which was tossed off, possibly in moments, by the alarmingly prolific Luc Besson; and it achieves full sprawl in the hands of director Pierre Morel — a man who once gave us, in league with Besson, the furious parkour quickie "District B13." That movie had a story, too, but it was never allowed to interfere with the film's real subject, which was running, jumping, climbing, smashing — nonstop fun stuff. Here, the story invites our attention, which is unwise.

It begins by introducing us to James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Myers), a young aide at the American embassy in Paris. Reece aspires to become a CIA operative, and is in fact already doing little errands for the Agency — swapping plates on cars, bugging diplomatic meetings. His big chance comes when he's assigned to team up with a hotshot agent named Charlie Wax (Travolta), who's flying in from the States. Here we're asked to believe that any intelligence outfit would deploy a loud, abrasive, foul-mouthed goon with a shaved head, a big blingy neck chain and a dodgy goatee that looks as if it had been blacked-in with shoe polish. Charlie makes his bellowing entrance at a Paris airport, carrying a bagful of energy drinks that he refuses to relinquish at Customs. We soon learn the reason why, and it doesn't bode well for the immediate future of peace and quiet in the City of Light.

It has to be said that Travolta appears to be having tons of fun here, but in this he is alone. His over-the-top-and-off-to-the-races performance unbalances the film, eclipsing Myers — a good actor handicapped by blandness — and everyone else in sight, including Reece's inevitably modelesque girlfriend, Caroline (Kasia Smutniak). Charlie claims to be in town to bust up an international cocaine ring, and he begins his inquiries by bashing in the face of a Chinese waiter who's slow to fill him in on the history of egg foo young. Soon, guns are drawn and bodies start piling up like whacked weeds — none of them, needless to say, Charlie's. After a wild shootout in a mannequin factory that John Woo would surely find familiar, Charlie announces that his real quarry is a gang of terrorists, at which point the cast of villains takes on an Arabic hue.

In accord with the movie's title, which echoes that of an old James Bond film, we are treated to occasional displays of spy-tech — satellite-linked wristwatches, tricky stick-cameras, the bulky rappelling gear that secret agents happen to carry around at all times. But these are half-hearted distractions, and before long the boys are once again beset by the roar of car bombs and blazing rocket-launchers. Well, Travolta is. For one considerable stretch of screen time, Myers is further marginalized by having to carry around a large vase filled with cocaine. The reason for this is best left unexamined.

If the stunts were more stylish and the direction less frantic, if the story added up to anything at all, "From Paris with Love" might have been a better movie. It's unlikely that it could have been a great one, though. It's a thin, jokey picture without a real sense of humor, a bad recipe in every respect. It's all cheese, no Royale.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Dear John," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "From Paris with Love."

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