Dec 7, 2010

Blu-ray Review: From Paris With Love (2010)

Blu-ray Review: From Paris With Love (2010)

Unlike other Luc Besson-produced neo-Eurospy films like Taken or Transporter 2, I can’t say that From Paris With Love is an especially good film. But I’ll be damned if it wasn’t a surprisingly enjoyable one, which counts for almost as much! I really had very low expectations going into the theater last spring. I was thrilled with the original concept (Pierre Morel, the director of Taken, handling on out-and-out, unrepentant Eurospy movie, of the purest James Bond rip-off form–at least judging from the title), slightly less thrilled with the casting (outside of Pulp Fiction, John Travolta has never really done it for me), thrilled anew when the earliest poster art was unveiled (one of the best examples of theatrical spy iconography we’ve seen in quite a while) and then entirely de-thrilled when the trailers started popping up and looking, well, less than stellar. Also less than thrilling was John Travolta’s laughable shaved head/Van Dyke look. Truth be told, I was dreading Travolta when I entered the theater. And in his initial appearance, he fulfilled all of my worst fears. He was way over the top, even for the world of this movie. He spewed the word “motherfucker” with such abandon that you had to suspect he was augmenting whatever usage the script already provided for his own amusement. And a few scenes in, he even sang... a truly, truly cringe-inducing version of “Me and Mrs. Jones.” About his gun. Which he named Mrs. Jones. Yeah, it was going to be a looong ride... And then an odd thing happened. After about twenty minutes of perpetually cringing at Travolta’s every line, and laughing at his over-the-top delivery, I suddenly realized that I was now laughing with him instead. My laughter had become quite genuine. Yes, Travolta is funny in this movie. In fact, despite my fears that he would ruin the film, he’s probably the best thing about it! His performance makes the film. (My girlfriend was convinced he was “doing” Samuel L. Jackson the whole time. She may be right.)

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays James Reese, a low-level CIA operative assigned to a Paris embassy cover–and the straight man to Travolta’s freight train of a superspy Charlie Wax. It’s a fairly thankless task to play a straight man to such an out of control performance, essentially amounting to lying down on the tracks in front of said freight train. But despite some dodgy facial hair of his own, Rhys-Meyers acquits himself ably enough. We meet his character in his every day life, performing tedious jobs as the Ambassador’s personal assistant (his cover) and even more tedious ones in his CIA role, basically acting as support for agents on much flashier missions. We also get a few of those saccharine love/family scenes that Luc Besson and Pierre Morel are both so fond of (think of the first twenty minutes of Taken) establishing his loving relationship with his girlfriend, Caroline (Kasia Smutniak). The treacle is laid on thick, but it actually does pay off, which was both unexpected and rewarding. Reese’s big break comes when his faceless Agency boss orders him to support visiting loose cannon Charlie Wax in any way he asks, setting up the typical buddy formula.

Naturally, Reese’s by-the-book approach clashes with Wax’s devil-may-care one (to put it mildly), especially as the bodies start to pile up. Wax takes him to a Chinese restaurant and proceeds to shoot it up, killing just about everyone there without explaining why to the stunned Reese. Then he shoots the ceiling and lots of cocaine rains down. Why is there cocaine in the ceiling? That’s not really important–nor is it satisfactorily explained. But it’s enough to set Reese and Wax on a collision course with a bunch of Chinese drug dealers for the first half of the movie–and it affords Reese the opportunity to carry around a vase full of coke (supposedly as evidence, but also never satisfactorily explained) for a while. Wax shoots up another building full of Chinese gang members, and the ever-escalating body count is treated as a (good) joke. Wax also spews a lot of politically incorrect jokes of his own in the process. (When Reese asks him how many he thinks are left, meaning drug dealers–not Chinese people–Wax replies “Last census? About a billion.”)

The moment the film really won me over comes about halfway through, when the enemy shifts from Chinese drug dealers to Muslim terrorists. By some sort of plot contrivance (again, not satisfactorily explained–but who cares?), Reese has had to imbibe some of the contents of the vase he’s carrying around, and the camera assumes his drugged-out point of view. The picture loses focus and the sound falls out. This just happens to be going on at the same moment that Wax is explaining the connection between the drug dealers and the extremists! So the audience never gets that explanation. I like that. It’s an action movie, and we don’t need it. I love that the film has the balls to acknowledge that. What’s the point of such exposition in a film like this? It’s like the clever missing reel gag in Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror: tongue firmly in cheek, the movie is admonishing us, “You don’t really care about that stuff, do you? You just want to see more killing!” And it’s right; to our shame, perhaps, we do. Which the film duly gets onto, never bothering to go back and fill in the missing information!

The second half of From Paris With Love concerns itself with religious extremist suicide bombers, which is a bit surprising considering the movie’s totally irreverent, throwaway tone. In fact, I think it’s the first popcorn spy movie to use actual Muslim extremists–suicide bombers, no less–as villains. You’d expect some sort of SPECTRE-like organization to be the baddies in this sort of film, not real-world threats. But no. The film even goes beyond that, and actually spends a bit of time (not as much as, say, Paradise Now or Syriana, but certainly more than you’d expect from this sort of action movie) to actually develop these suicide bombers, and explore what motivates their fanaticism. I’m not sure the clash of completely unbelievable popcorn heroes (seriously, Travolta’s character is a walking cartoon!) with totally down-to-earth enemies actually works, but once again, I give the movie credit for trying it. Naturally, this sudden shift in enemies leads to a much grittier, dramatic–even emotional–denoument than one would expect from a film such as this. From Travolta’s performance to this odd conclusion, From Paris With Love continually surprised me. As I said at the beginning of my review, it’s not a great movie–or even a particularly good one–but it’s one that takes risks. And for this, I both respected and enjoyed it–a lot more than I expected to. Just beware, though, spy fans: despite that title, it’s not really a 007 send-up of any sort. It’s more of a Eurospy take on a Lethal Weapon-sort of total destruction buddy action comedy.

Lionsgate's Blu-ray and DVD and pack a generous amount of special features (by today’s standards, anyway), but not all of them live up to their promise. Pierre Morel seems like a smart and amiable guy and speaks surprisingly good English (even if he mumbles it), but his audio commentary is downright boring. He does a lot of narrating what’s on screen, which makes for the most boring kind of commentary. To his credit he often tries to then explain why what’s happening is happening, but it’s usually pretty self-evident. He conveys a lot of information about everything, but not in a very dynamic manner. The rare good bits include a discussion of the difficulty inherent in performing wirework within a narrow spiral staircase, and any time he talks about Paris itself, for which the director conveys a genuine love. Unfortunately, he’s got a habit of stating the obvious. (“The funny part about the Reese character is that he never knows what’s going on, basically.” Thanks for that, Pierre!)

The “bonus view” aspect on the Blu-ray, which shows Morel talking in a picture-within-a-picture, is utterly worthless. Morel is sitting at a soundboard in an editing suite recording the track. Sometimes we get a wide shot of him, sometimes medium. But he’s always just sitting there. He’s not showing us anything or doing anything cool like on Warner’s Maximum Movie Mode Blu-ray features. The most exciting thing that happens is when he drinks some water. Not only does this gimmick add nothing; it actually detracts from the audio commentary! As far as I can tell, there’s no way to hear the commentary without seeing him speak, so if you’re a commentary fanatic then you’d be better off with the regular DVD. But this track really isn’t worth hearing anyway, so that’s all moot. Here’s the highlight, to save you the trouble of listening, spoken with a rare conviction: “I wish it was so easy to steal a police car in France! Actually, it’s not that simple.” But that’s as good as it gets. Morel definitely could have benefited from a few more people on the track to help him out.

Luckily, “The Making of From Paris with Love” is a much more interesting look behind the scenes of this movie than the lackluster commentary. In fact, the half-hour documentary is surprisingly in-depth, covering all aspects of making the film, and definitely not just the usual EPK bullshit. There’s still a bit of the love-fest aspect of that, but in this case I actually get the sense that it’s true. From the generous amount of behind-the-scenes (BTS) footage we’re shown, it seems like this was actually a fun set to be on. Pierre Morel covers a lot of the same ground he covers in his meandering commentary, but with the benefit of editing it comes off as much more interesting and to-the-point. He offers some good insights into a film that I otherwise might have written off as insightless. As the movie progresses, he points out, it gets further and further away from what he calls the “postcard-ish” Paris of the Eiffel Tower, and “closer to what Paris actually is.” Since all of Paris looks pretty postcard-ish to me, I probably wouldn’t have picked up on that. Morel also acknowledges the movie’s odd change of tone, noting that it starts out as a buddy comedy and then in the middle trips towards something darker. When you realize that there was method behind the madness in this radical shift, the whole thing seems a lot more admirable. Whether it totally works or not, it was a ballsy move–and not one you’re likely to find in traditional American studio filmmaking.

Writer Adi Hasak provides a fascinating overview of what it’s like working with Luc Besson to create these neo-Eurospy movies for EuropaCorp, and frankly, it sounds like a writer’s dream come true. (This jibes what Taken writer Robert Mark Kamen said in that remarkably candid interview with the LA Times last year.)

John Travolta surprised me in the movie, and he surprised me again in this documentary, offering some insights well beyond the sort that actors tend to give in EPKs. He reveals that his character’s radical shaved-head look was far from arbitrary. The actor feels that his dialogue, which is very offensive on paper, isn’t offensive when delivered by a character who looks so outrageous. If he were dressed in a suit, the lines would be offensive. That really got me thinking. It’s an interesting point, and serves well to separate this modern Euospy hero from those of the past, who certainly were offensive when spouting the same (albeit less self-aware) sorts of racist and sexist viewpoints in their smarmy suits. Travolta also talks about how his dancing background helps him out in the John Woo-like choreographed gunfights, which had never occurred to me watching his performances in actual Woo movies.

Actress Katia Smutniak turns out to be Polish, but worked in Italy before being cast in this French film, all of which lends her true Eurospy babe cred! (Many of the great Eurospy babes of the past, like Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina and Daniella Bianchi, were truly cosmopolitan.) Her actual contributions to the Making-Of, however, prove considerably less insightful than Travolta’s: “I love all the running things and stuff. That’s the best part of the movie, I think.” (Actually, that’s pretty well-said. And it should be the best part of a ridiculous neo-Eurospy movie like this.)

The documentary also covers all the big action setpieces, spending a lot of time on the finale's big highway chase, of course. Watching this making-of featurette, you can’t help but be struck that this movie really deserved to do much better than it did. Obviously lots of hard work is put into every big movie that flops, but this seems like not only hard work, but passion.

The spy-related featurettes really excited me, but ended up proving a bit of a mixed bag. “Secrets of Spy Craft: Inside the International Spy Museum” isn’t really a documentary about the Spy Museum, but simply a short, rapidly-edited walk-through of the museum focusing more on the movie prop exhibits than the real-world ones. (When the obnoxious Mr. Moviephone Voice narrator says “real spy equipment,” what they show on screen is a Bond DB5!) The actual spy devices you do see are ones that aficionados are probably already familiar with because they’re always mentioned in any of the museum’s publicity, like that fake dog doo homing beacon. Unlike the Making-Of, this featurette really is an EPK piece, offering quick and empty soundbites like, “Even Thomas Jefferson was involved in spycraft!” (That exclamation mark indicates not only a baritone delivery, but all the unnecessary emphasis you’d expect Mr. Moviephone to give to that sentence.)

The 16-minute documentary “Spies, Spooks and Special Ops: Life Under Cover” fares much better. Dedicated spy fans aren’t likely to learn anything new, but it serves as a good basic primer on real-world espionage and tradecraft. Lots of former CIA officers and FBI agents appear as Talking Heads, including a pair that have had their own movies made about them. (That would be Robert Baer, who George Clooney based his performance on in Syriana, and Eric O’Neill, who was played by Ryan Philippe in Breach. Will we soon be seeing Valerie Plame on featurettes like this one?) It’s a pretty funny dichotomy to hear a fairly serious overview of intelligence operations from actual practitioners intercut with scenes from From Paris With Love, which seem totally incongruous! Actually, the fact that the editors could dig up enough footage to sort of match what was being said made me realize how much lip service was paid to real spycraft in this film before going wildly off the reservation. One former officer even calls part of the movie “a very plausible storyline.” (Hint: it’s the threat of an attack on an embassy, not the wholesale massacre of an entire Chinese restaurant full of drug dealers... or carrying a vase full of cocaine all over Paris!) Of course the whole featurette is cut to be fairly sensational, so the focus is on Special Operations Officers (who the experts try to equate with John Travolta’s cartoon of a character) and how to plant bugs, and not on the minutiae of day-to-day intelligence analysis like you might read about in a John Le Carré novel. (Then again, I’m probably the only person watching From Paris With Love who would be interested in seeing that.)

“Charlie Wax’s Gun Locker” examines (as you might guess) the weapons used by John Travolta in the movie. It’s not a documentary, but an odd–and kind of neat–little old-school DVD feature sure to please budding gun nuts and mildly amuse the rest of us. You select a gun from the “locker” and then have the opportunity to watch it spin around while you read tech specs (weight, muzzle velocity, rounds per minute, etc.), watch it in action (see a clip from the movie) or “take it to a firing range.” I can’t tell if this last option is cool or pointless, but it made me smile. Basically, you just see a target (as if you were at a range) and then watch it get shot up in a pattern supposedly reflecting shots fired from the weapon in question. You can also read Wax’s rating for each gun, which is just an arbitrary quote from the movie taken out of context. (That part is dumb.) The trivia game, “Friend or Foe” is actually kind of fun. (And I’m generally loathe to praise this sort of feature.) It runs on screen while you watch the movie, sort of like an interactive pop-up video fact track. The questions run the gamut from Paris and French culture to spies to the actors in the movie to totally random stuff. It’s certainly not essential, but decent fun for our ADD-addled culture if you’re one of those people who has to be doing something else while you’re watching a movie. (I hate to admit I'm becoming one of those people, frequently writing the content of this blog as I watch my spy movies.) The only drawback is that you can’t fast-forward when you’re watching the in this mode. Well, that, and the fact that the questions definitely lean toward the facile. The theatrical trailer (which really undersold the film) rounds out the ample special features on this disc.

All in all, Lionsgate’s Blu-ray is a pretty neat little bundle. The commentary may be worthless, but there are some good special features to make up for that, and they achieved the rare feat of raising my opinion of the film itself. Most of those ones are also available on the DVD, though, and that Blu-ray exclusive “BonusView” with the commentary certainly doesn’t make it worth splurging for the BD. (The high-definition transfer alone, while quite nice, isn’t a lure for me personally; I don’t feel that there’s really anything wrong with standard-definition DVDs, and this isn’t a movie that cries out for the greatest picture imaginable.) However, the movie itself is, of course, the main attraction, and it’s a lot of fun–thanks largely to John Travolta. It’s definitely worth checking out, and at the kinds of bargain prices both versions have been selling for lately, worth buying as well.

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