Sometimes bad movies can be painful in a good way. A particular combination of goofy ideas, technical ineptitude and misguided execution can actually turn out to be entertaining--provided the film knows what it is and runs with that. Alcohol can only help matters.
From Paris with Love looked like it could possibly be that kind of bad. Producer Luc Besson (known for his fair share of crazy and fun action movies, i.e. The Transporter series) has a decent track record in coming up with these kinetic, pulpy stories and finding talented action directors to make them.
Director Pierre Morel is represented quite well with last year's, Liam Neeson-starring punchfest, Taken. And John Travolta seems to insist on making movies I can't bring myself to watch, so this is likely the last time I'm going to get to see him on-screen until he decides to stop making Wild Hogs sequels. Oy.
But sadly, in the arena of fun bad movies, From Paris with Love is just a groaner. I knew it was in trouble within the first two minutes.
James Reese (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) works as an attaché in the U.S. Embassy in Paris, who is in preparations to oversee the visiting U.S. ambassador's trip for an African Peace Summit. Unbeknownst to his superiors, Reese also works as a low-level CIA operative and helps to do things like bug offices and drive around contacts. Reese pines to be a full special ops agent, and he's getting tired of doing the grunt work.
But when he's tasked with springing an American agent, Charlie Wax (John Travolta) from French Customs, Reese gets taken for a walk on the wild side that gives him a taste of the life he's been dreaming about, while making him realize it might not be what he'd hoped.
Going much beyond that is kind of pointless since the script pulls every cheap trick in the book to keep you off-guard and in the dark as to where it's all going, and From Paris with Love needs every surprise it can keep.
Written by Adi Hasak from a story by Luc Besson, the script is an on-the-rails, amateurish attempt at a buddy cop comedy that's entirely too dull in the first act and unintentionally funny throughout the last two thanks in large part to Travolta's over-the-top mugging.
The script is full of holes and overly reliant on coincidence, but the real atrocity is much of the dialogue. It's almost as if the role of Charlie Wax might have been written with a hip-hop star in mind, but when they found out Travolta wanted the part just gave it to him unchanged.
Its woefully ancient "Now that's what I'm talkin' about!" lines are windows into the mind of a middle-aged hack writer filtering a decade of bad action movies and regurgitating them into a derivative slog of film.
Director Pierre Morel fares a little better and is rarely able to establish a sense of tension, neither in the opening act, which is all a bunch of cloak and dagger stuff, nor the action sequences that make up the last two thirds of the film. He gets a couple of good car chases in there, though it's nothing we haven't seen before.
But during the fight sequences, Morel seems to be channeling far superior Hong Kong films, particularly early John Woo classics like A Better Tomorrow and A Bullet in the Head--just without the visual coherence or the originality. Although this makes for inadvertent laughs as the paunchy, out-of-shape Travolta mows down bad guy after bad guy in slow motion. It's surreal.
Speaking of Travolta, his scenery chewing is almost a force of nature and is the single aspect of the film that nearly pushes From Paris with Love into "so bad it's good" territory.
The combination of his ridiculous chrome-dome and dyed goatee, the groan inducing, hackneyed dialogue he spits out (yes, they even break out his "Royale with cheese" line in what must have been the film's sole re-write) and the laugh worthy sight of him kicking more ass than Kimbo Slice really almost makes From Paris with Love putrid enough to enjoy. Almost.
Rhys Meyers as James Reece fares best I suppose, though I can't imagine how many blown takes there were when he burst out in uncontrollable laughter at the ridiculousness of it all. I suppose that's the best thing I could say for both him and Travolta. They looked like they were having fun.
It would have been nice if I had, too.
Survival of the Fittest
Charles Darwin, the 19th Century scientist who discovered the theory of natural selection, was (to the detriment of his productive life) not imbued with a sense of urgency.
That's made emphatically clear in Creation, a rudderless, glacially paced, yet vaguely engaging portrait of the man behind the theory that still inspires many of my fellow countrymen to ignore the empirical science that makes their existence possible.
I guess I'm carrying some baggage here.
Creation takes place during a nebulous span of time, opening with Darwin (Paul Bettany) regaling his daughter Annie (Martha West) with tales of the discovery of the Galapagos Islands. He's revealed to be a loving family man and a deeply considerate thinker with a wife, Emma, (Jennifer Connelly) who reveres him as much as she fears for his soul.
Darwin is in ill health, which he surmises might be a side effect of the pressures of his research. He's keenly aware that what he is discovering about the nature of the world flies in the face of Scripture and is likely to bring unwanted consequences should he finally commit his findings to paper--particularly in his marriage to the devoutly religious Emma.
After producing a synopsis of his theory, his friends in the scientific community encourage him to complete his research and write the book with Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones), who's practically salivating at the idea of the downfall of the Church that such knowledge would bring, and telling Darwin that he would have "killed God." No pressure there. Of course, this dissuades Darwin even further.
While not a believer in the Divine Plan, Darwin recognizes the way religion binds society into a mostly operational construct, and he fears stripping that away might doom civilized society. But his illness still plagues him (as well as an unrevealed tragedy) and in order to purge himself, he finally sets forth writing the book that would change the world.
Based on Randal Keynes's biography (which itself was culled from Darwin's letters; Keynes is his great-great grandson) and directed in a stiffly deliberate fashion by Jon Amiel, Creation is successful at painting a seemingly complete portrait of a man whose ideas reverberate to this day.
Amiel, working from a script by John Collee (Master and Commander), paints the proceedings in deft, rich visuals that help the film's meandering narrative flow and lethargic pacing. Much like Darwin, he doesn't seem to be in a rush, making the film's fairly economical 108-minute run time feel considerably longer.
Much of Creation is told in flash backs, indulging in strange, moody, visual flourishes that juxtapose Darwin's narration with images of his idyllic home, the observations that informed his ideas and his fevered hallucinatory dreams.
The look of the film is quite lovely, which is no surprise as that's generally on par for the course with BBC productions. And that's exactly what Creation feels like, for better and worse.
The art design, set decoration, costumes and cinematography are all top-notch, but it has the feel of an episode of Masterpiece Theater. Not necessarily a bad thing depending on your disposition towards leisurely paced, pastorally set, British historical dramas.
Of course, the film has plenty of grist for controversy if you are in the frame of mind that On the Origin of Species was co-written by Satan, but the film never courts it. It's content to tell the making-of story and leave the judgments to the audience, instead of delving into the man. Considering that Darwin was a soft-spoken, sensitive, science geek, with more than his fair share of indecisive tendencies, Creation doesn't translate into cinematic fireworks.
That's not to say Bettany doesn't do a fine job. He's too capable and interesting an actor to render Darwin boring. He gives a performance brimming with emotion without ever crossing into melodrama; at least until the script gives him no choice. He enjoys a great chemistry with Connelly as Emma Darwin, which shouldn't come as a surprise as she is an equally capable actor, and it probably doesn't hurt that she's married to Bettany in real life.
Connelly is nearly regal in the role, and it is her natural chemistry with Bettany that helps keep the film from devolving into a dry bore with some soothing visuals. Just barely. I'm not sure there is really a way to make this material riveting in the first place, but Creation counts on its high-caliber production values and clever casting to give it the proverbial college try.
At least it's no Extraordinary Measures.
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