Watching John Travolta having a high time playing a lowdown killer in From Paris With Love is bittersweet fun, and the only reason to spend time or money on Pierre Morel's uneven movie.
From Paris With Love completed principal photography in December 2008, only days before Travolta's teenage son Jett was found dead of natural causes. Travolta's grief and Disney's decision to cancel a Wild Hogs sequel led to an acting hiatus without a definite end in sight.
Nobody's saying From Paris With Love is the last time we'll see Travolta onscreen. But it's the last time we'll watch him perform a role that isn't informed by personal tragedy. Here, he's a man going full-tilt gonzo, spewing profanities and spraying bullets while chasing down a terrorist plot; bald and bad, huffing cocaine and groping women between kills.
You have to imagine that if and when Travolta returns, he'll choose tamer projects in Jett's memory, unless another Pulp Fiction masterpiece comes along.
Travolta's character in From Paris With Love, a loose cannon secret agent named Charlie Wax, seems to idolize John Travolta movies. It's self-indulgent yet amusing when Charlie compares a bloody shootout to a John Woo movie (like Face/Off), and gets giddy when he's munching a "Royale with cheese," reprising a memorable Pulp Fiction line (twice).
All that's missing is a Saturday Night Fever disco pose to complete Travolta's homage to himself. Travolta is a rare modern Hollywood star who can get away with that since his legacy deserves it.
Charlie gets partnered with a U.S. embassy paper pusher named James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who has a pencil-thin mustache, frisky French girlfriend (Kasia Smutniak) and daydreams of becoming a spy. It's a pairing that doesn't make sense considering the stakes — terrorists bombing an economic summit — but nothing else in From Paris With Love does, either.
Morel, who made last year's taut, more coherent thriller Taken, piles up MacGuffins, red herrings, switcheroos or whatever else you call plot twists for convenience. Cloak scenes exist only to set up the daggers: brutal beatdowns, gunplay and the old reliable car chase, none of which add anything fresh to the cliches.
Except that Travolta is obviously having a great time doing anything asked of him — in some cases, what's asked of his stunt double or spiced up in the editing room. Occasionally, his rush becomes infectious. From Paris With Love is a bad movie made tolerable by Travolta, working for the final time like there's nothing to lose because he has it all, before he didn't anymore.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.