Mr. Clean gets just a little bit tougher on dirt.
(Lionsgate) John Travolta, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Kasia Smutniak, Richard Durden, Yin Bing, Amber Rose Revah, Eric Gordon, Francois Bredon, Chems Eddine Dahmani, Alexandra Boyd, Sami Darr, Michael Vander-Meiren. Directed by Pierre Morel
While the cold war came to an end, espionage didn’t. Spies are alive and well and some of them are living in Paris.
James Reese (Rhys Meyers) is a personal aide to the United States ambassador to France (Durden). He is smart, efficient, ambitious and charming. He’s the point man on nearly all of the ambassador’s projects, from a meeting with the French Defense Minister (Gordon) to an upcoming trade summit with African nations. Reese has a beautiful French girlfriend named Caroline (Smutniak) who loves him so much that she proposed to him. Bold, them French girls are.
James also works for a government espionage agency as a low-level functionary. Most of the tasks he’s been giving are fairly routine, like changing license plates on getaway vehicles and placing electronic monitoring devices in the French Defense Minister’s office. He yearns to be a field operative – a spy – doing his part to save the world but up to now he hasn’t gotten the chance. Still, in these tasks he shows efficiency and ingenuity; so much so that he is given a new task – to partner up with a veteran field operative, Charlie Wax (Travolta).
Wax is foul-mouthed, foul-tempered and operates by his own set of rules. He shoots first, asks questions later then shoots again. He doesn’t mind leaving a trail of damage in his wake the size of an F5 tornado swath. With his shaven head and goatee, he resembles a cross between Satan, Mr. Clean and ex-wrestlers Goldberg and Stone Cold Steve Austin and in temperament…well, whichever one of those has the foulest, vilest most evil temper.
He is there investigating a drug ring run by Palestinians. He tells James to take him to a Chinese restaurant, a dodgy one in a seedy part of Paris. He’s heard the egg foo yung (not even a true Chinese dish, as James is only too happy to inform Wax; it’s an entirely American invention) is superior here, but he’s heard wrong. The service isn’t bad though – in fact, it’s killer.
After letting one of the waiters live through the inevitable barrage of bullets, Charlie and James follow the surviving waiter through the back streets of urban Paris to a…an….well, it’s sort of a cross between a mannequin warehouse and a Chinese theater. At least, as far as I could tell; Might have been a skating rink there too for all I know.
He gets the address of someone farther up the food chain and the two, Wax and James – who is beginning to wonder if he’s really cut out for working with a cowboy like Wax – move their way up the ladder, leaving a pile of bodies as they go. However, Wax has told James a liiiiiiiittle white lie; it’s not drug dealers he’s after, but terrorists. And James, as it turns out, is unknowingly involved, right up to his pretentious moustache.
Director Morel last brought us Taken, a surprisingly effective taut thriller. He showed himself to be an effective action director there, and he is here as well. The car chases are well-staged and the fights for the most part, well-choreographed. There is enough of an adrenaline rush here to keep you going for the whole movie.
What doesn’t work quite as well is the story. A good spy story should have things coming at you from every direction, but there isn’t much of that here. There is a big twist to the plot but it isn’t anything you haven’t seen and can’t predict. Simple can be better in most cases, but in others simple doesn’t work quite as well.
What does work well is Travolta. Completely unrecognizable as Charlie Wax, Travolta takes the opportunity to go completely over-the-top. Alone of anyone in this movie he seems to be having a good time and he takes us along for the ride. If there’s a reason for a sequel to this movie, it’s to see what Charlie does next.
Rhys Meyers, of Showtime’s “The Tudors” has a role that isn’t nearly as fun and doesn’t have the potential, but he makes the humorless James at least palatable. Smutniak also does really well as Caroline; of all the characters she might have had the most depth, but unfortunately the writers chose not to really explore it so she winds up symbolizing the film as something of a wasted opportunity.
Still, as mindless entertainment goes this is top-notch. Travolta is at the top of his game and that alone is worth the price of admission. There are several sly references to Pulp Fiction which may not be the best idea – who wants to remind themselves of a better movie than the one they’re watching – but for my part I found those references to be a nice homage. The movie, in any case, is the cinematic equivalent of a Royale with Cheese; tasty but ultimately filled with empty calories.
REASONS TO GO: Travolta is obviously having a good time with his larger-than-life role and it elevates the movie. Morel is a strong action director.
REASONS TO STAY: The story isn’t particularly innovative and the big twist isn’t much of a surprise (ask Da Queen – I called it early on). The villains aren’t particularly intimidating.
FAMILY VALUES: The violence can be bloody and occasionally gruesome. The language is pretty rough and there is also some drug use depicted. Teens and older only.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 1955 film To Paris With Love is said to have been the inspiration for the Ian Fleming James Bond novel To Russia With Love which was made into a film in 1963. None of the three films are related.
HOME OR THEATER: Ahhhh I gotta go big screen on this one. Not that it’s got grand vistas or big effects; it just feels like a popcorn movie to me.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
TOMORROW: The Wolfman