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Friday, 27 August 2010

In the polymorphous Other of Paris a polyglot career diplomat and sometimes-secret operative named James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) lives his life of shadows and deceit. From his point of view, it's too staid out here in Froggie-Land. A French fiancee and the occasional undercover operation? These are not enough to satisfy his bounding ambition. Able to speak a half-dozen languages fluently, he wants yet more. He wants to be a member of the elite, the sworn special-ops agents that America - and every other country, it seems - stations overseas to do the undisclosed for their faceless masters.

Enter Charlie Wax (John Travolta), a bull-headed, nimble-handed, iconoclastic and well-armed pawn in the great game our politicians tell us to love: counter-terrorism. It may be a strange and forbidding world out there in mainland Europe, but America has an equally strange and even-more forbidding weapon in its arsenal of intercontinental policing. And he's here, in Paris, with a bag full of soda cans and some grievous attitude.

The cans are what get Wax in trouble with French customs. Reece arrives, slaps a diplomatic sticker on the gear and the two bravos roll out into the dark continental streets in a big black car. But before Reece can get the bearings of his new role, Wax has him pull up at the kerb in front of a Chinese restaurant. By the time they leave there will be a mass of dead bodies, a shitload of spent cartridges, and a blue ceramic vase a quarter-filled with high-quality cocaine. Reece spends half the film carrying the vase around as they track down their quarry: a cell of Pakistani terrorists who use the drugs to fund their nefarious enterprise of death.

With these terrorists, we're a long way away from the well-liked local boys who gathered one day back in July 2005 to create fear and death on the London metropolitan railway. In From Paris With Love (dir Pierre Morel, 2010), there's a slumland apartment that has been turned into a specialised laboratory for making explosive vests to be worn by the hardened jihadis that screenwriters Adi Hasak and the well-known filmmaker Luc Besson have devised in order to entertain a blue-and-red blooded American audience.

There's an intimate feel to the movie, too. It's got a cartoon simplicity that is underscored by the fact that the baddies are all Chinese or Pakistani. And then there's the fact of having selected John Travolta to play the rough diamond, Wax. We're regaled with references to the actor's famous role in Quentin Tarantino's 1997 blockbuster Pulp Fiction when his suited minders appear out of the darkness bearing a bag with take-away hamburgers from a local McDonalds. 'Royale with cheese' is a commonplace in film language, nowadays.

Oh, well. But the simplicity, which will be of service to its intended, small-town American audience, does not make the film into a silly pastiche. The campness is light and not overbearing. There's a lot of knowingness involved, as well, as when Reece's fiance catches a glimpse of the pair in an elevator in one of the seedy quarters of the city they land in. Reece explains to Wax that he has to talk to Caroline (Kasia Smutniak) as he's relieving a prostitute's unfortunate customer of his mobile charger. Wax just laughs and tells him to watch the shop across the road as he dallies with the girl they've procured from the pimp in the laneway below.

There are a lot of laneways, unkempt streets, rooftops, stairways and highways in this movie, where modernity's favourite conveyance, the automobile, is accorded a precedence it has undoubtedly deserved and that storytellers love to use to engage us with. The two men are always on the way to someplace else. Equally, the filmmakers have deliberately given Paris a waystation feel. The forces of international terrorism exploit the city by staging there exchanges of drugs for money, and money for high explosives. Another thing that's exchanged in the city is the ideology of submission to God's will that allows a young woman to strap on a belt holding a lethal device and go to a meeting of African diplomats and American politicians.

Amid all this uncertainty and movement there's little stability. It comes from an unlikely quarter. On the one hand you've got Wax, whose propensity for sudden movement is inexhaustible but who loves Frank Sinatra. On the other hand you've got the handsome, lovelorn Reece, who anchors the viewer in the story because he's just like one of us.

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