Monday, 15 March 2010

From Paris WIth Love; get ready for the change-up

Raymond Chandler famously wrote something to the effect that when a writer felt the well of inspiration run dry, he could always resort to having a man come into the room with a gun in his hand. Chandler was talking about his own process; his books are something to relish for the prose style and the depth of the characterisation rather than the plots. It's not unfair to say that Chandler's novels don't actually have plots, just a pile of stuff happening. Of course, this is also true of life, but detective stories are supposed to be all about the plot. Chandler knew this, but either didn't care or didn't know what to do about it. I tend to think that he didn't care; this is the guy who was asked what was going in the film adaptation of his own novel The Big Sleep and responded that he hadn't a clue. Somehow, it didn't matter; just as when you've got a man playing the piano well enough, no-one takes the time to wonder why his tie doesn't match his shirt, when you've got a man who can write as well as Chandler did, it seems almost churlish to fuss about whether he's also making sense.

I was thinking about all of this while watching From Paris With Love. Partly because it wasn't as though the film itself was giving the higher centres of my brain anything better to do, but mostly because Pierre Morel appears to have been operating for the first half of the movie on the principle that if he couldn't think of anything else to do, he could always have John Travolta kill the living hell out of a few people and buy some time that way. Morel has form in the delicate art of hiring biggish names to come to Paris and kill people; last year he put out Taken, in which Liam Neeson kills most of the Albanians and a lot of the Arabs in Paris. One difference - maybe the only difference of any importance - is that Liam Neeson's an actual actor, and it was hard to avoid the feeling that the expression of weary disdain he uses to show contempt for his quarry wasn't actually acting, but just him flashing back to the moment when he got handed the script and the cheque and didn't quite have the self respect to hand them back. Travolta is a star rather than an actor, and he takes to his cartoonish role with palpable relish. I don't think it bothered him for a second that he was in trash. He actually kills even more people than Neeson did in Taken, for far less apparent reason. At least Liam had had his kid stolen by white slavers and was killing his way through them to find the girl. Travolta's Charlie Wachs seems to have arrived in Paris with a plan that boiled down to "Kill everyone you meet, and sooner or later it will all make sense." While the first part of the plan works out fine, the second part is epically failed.

Which is not to say that the film isn't fun, at first. Switch off the bit of your brain that manages empathy and it's rather like Tom and Jerry with live ammunition and a largely dead cast. The body count ratchets up so fast that the characters start making jokes about it, and it's largely played for laughs. It's easy - it's fair - to blame Morel for this, but Morel's a hired gun for Luc Besson and Luc Besson "wrote" this. I find myself wondering what the world looks like for Besson. I once joked that there were few problems a civil servant could face which couldn't be solved with a shredder, a chainsaw or a large enough quantity of Semtex, but Besson seems to think that most problems can be solved with a brisk massacre of some faceless horde or other. Sometimes there's enough panache to it that I don't mind (Bruce Willis's moment of negotiation in the Fifth Element ought to be a compulsory part of every course in negotiation), but twice in a year now Luc has put together a movie in which a white dude shows up in Paris and kills a bunch of foreigners more or less just because they're there.

Anyhow, it's all full tilt boogie for about an hour or so, with Travolta killing everyone he meets in more and more outrageously kinetic ways and Jonathan Rhys Myers trying to keep up with him while he worries about his cute love interest. Then it gets a bit weird. Back when I was talking about the Kingdom, I mentioned that the massive shootout at the end made me think that the director had belatedly realised he had a load of ammunition to use up; this time it's like Morel paced himself wrong and ran out of bullets half way through, because from the middle of the movie onwards, there's a lot less shooting and a lot more worrying about stuff. There's also a major change in tone, from incredibly violent knockabout farce to something where violence seems to have real and upsetting consequences for people we've actually been given enough time to see as human. So, as I said, get ready for the change-up. I'm not sure that From Paris With Love would have been a good film if it had taken the same line all the way through that it eventually settles into, but I'd feel less worried about the people who made it. As I think about it now, the second half makes you realise that the people making the movie are equipped to know that there's something terribly wrong with the thinking in the first half, and they went ahead and did it anyway.

And then I gave them some money. Feeling bad about it isn't going to make THAT any better.

There are enjoyable little touches. There's a whole scene that was written just to let Travolta say the words "Royale with cheese" in Paris. (It feels disloyal to John to record that I then had to explain that this wasn't shoddy product placement but a potentially awesome shoutout to Pulp Fiction). And Travolta's given a lot of good lines (he probably insisted) which he delivers well. (Personal favourite - Rhys Myers trying to explain the combination lock in his car to Travolta who just bangs in the numbers he obviously already knew and says "Let me, I'm a good guesser." It works because it really underlines that Travolta is on top of the situation and Rhys Myers is a babe in the wood. Earlier on, Rhys Myers, who's playing an entry level spy dreaming of the big time, is tasked to swap the licence plates on a car about to be used by real spies; while he was unscrewing the plates John muttered that you'd have thought the CIA would give him a power screwdriver; I responded that refusing to issue a power screwdriver to someone who you'd given a gun and coded safe in his carboot was exactly the kind of pointless economy that defines government agencies.

John found it hilarious that all the detonators in the suicide belts were bright red and had danger markings on them, and I'm not sure he was fully convinced by my reply that real world detonators are covered with health and safety warnings and suicide bombers work a lot with "salvaged equipment". Which was a tiny, tiny link to last week's film, also set in Paris, but apparently made on a completely different planet.

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