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From Paris With Love

Wax Off

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Moviegoers will have two films made by ultra-prolific writer-director-producer Luc Besson to choose from this weekend, District 13: Ultimatum and From Paris With Love, a buddy-action film starring a sadly bloated, bearded, bald John Travolta as Charlie Wax, an aggressively gregarious, hot-tempered U.S. government assassin hunting terrorists in France.

Wax is assisted by diplomatic aide and wannabe spy, James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). If Travolta’s Charlie Wax character (yes, there’s the obligatory Karate Kid “wax on, wax off” reference) is our one and only hope, then we might as well raise the white flag and just give in to terrorists and their vaguely defined goals.

From Paris With Love waits 10-15 minutes before introducing Wax, initially focusing on Meyers’ character, Reece. He lives in a swanky, spacious apartment in Paris with French live-in girlfriend, Caroline (Kasia Smutniak), who adores him. Reece, however, wants more than to be an aide to an ambassador or even work in the foreign service. Somehow Reece has become the inside man for the CIA. He’s tired of menial tasks like changing plates on cars or bugging the French ambassador’s private meeting room. He wants to live the life of a James Bond or Jason Bourne. He gets that chance when they assign him to drive Wax around Paris while he completes his latest mission.

Before they can go anywhere, Reece has to extricate Wax from French Customs. Wax insists on bringing in a bagful of energy drinks (they’re more than that, of course), insulting French customs officials as rudely as possible. He’s the walking, talking, living embodiment of the Ugly American.

After Reece secures Wax’s freedom, Wax takes Reece on an all-night and all-day killing spree, first targeting Asian drug traffickers, then Arab drug dealers, and finally the Pakistani terrorists planning an attack at an upcoming AIDS conference. Wax uses brute, sometimes lethal force to get what he wants, but the naïve, inexperienced Reece can’t bring himself to pull the trigger when he’s confronted with a real-life terrorist.

When is a twist not a twist? When it’s predictable 10 minutes in to a film. It’s also a sure sign that the screenwriter, in this case Adi Hasak, has brought their C- or D-game to their screenwriting duties and with Luc Besson as the story guy and producer, you can rest assured that whatever film comes out under his name will be short on originality and inspiration and long on clichéd plot points “borrowed” from calculably better films.

But was anyone expecting anything more from Besson? If so, they certainly should have paid more attention to his extensive oeuvre. Besson has never met an action cliché he didn’t like and use in his films. Sometimes it works, like it did last year with Taken, a gritty revenge-thriller starring Liam Neeson, and sometimes it doesn’t work. From Paris With Love fits in the latter category.

Aside from the string of action genre clichés and racial and ethnic insensitivity, From Paris With Love’s biggest problem is John Travolta, or rather Besson’s expectation that audiences will suspend disbelief beyond the breaking point and buy Travolta as an unparalleled badass — an expert at hand-to-hand combat, firearms, and anything else that can be used as a weapon.

Unfortunately for Besson and Travolta, even the suspension of disbelief has its limits. We’re also expected to believe Wax is an energetic, athletic super-spy who can outrun bullets, hit all of his targets, human and otherwise, unerringly, and barely break a sweat. Maybe twenty-five years ago, heck maybe 16 years ago, Travolta as a super-spy wouldn’t have been so laughable, but in 2010, it’s just a 95-minute joke.

But maybe we shouldn’t take From Paris With Love as a straight action film. Maybe we have it all wrong and we should take From Paris With Love as an action parody. That doesn’t quite work, though. Sure Besson and Hasak tried to make Wax a man of many jokes. Unfortunately, they forgot to bring any semblance of a sense of humor to the writing.

From Paris With Love often feels as if DreamWorks Animation had decided to make a live-action film. It’s crammed with pop culture references meant as humor, but it’s never actually funny. Attempting to trade on Travolta’s long ago appearance in Pulp Fiction is just one example of a limp, lame attempt at humor. It ends up as a reminder of how far Travolta’s career has fallen since then.