To my mind, the greatest tragedy of the Bush presidency was that the image America projected of itself was a crude caricature of all that was great in the idea of America. A country founded on lofty principles had descended into populist, xenophobic, knee-jerk foreign policy, and with figures like Sarah Palin and media outlets such as Fox News, was portraying itself as a country that gloried in its own ignorance - where a stubborn refusal to see the complexity of an issue was lauded as homespun wisdom.
The problem with playing with such caricatures (as I am sure many of the more savvy in Washington were consciously doing) is that others may take you at face value. And for every American who thinks of the French as cheese-eating surrender monkeys, and the average Pakistani as a terrorist-harbouring rag-head, there's a Frenchman and a Pakistani who believes that Americans are basically coming straight out of TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE with a cultural chauvinism and gun-totin' agenda that is as abhorrent as it is (I hope) mistaken.
If cinema reflects the times in which we live, FROM PARIS WITH LOVE is, then, a fascinating cultural artefact. A movie financed by a US studio, starring a major US movie star, in which a US secret agent comes to Paris to chase down a Pakistani terrorist cell that is pushing coke to launder money. (Presumably they have never heard of Liechtenstein). The French are impotent, bereaucratic fools; the Chinese are drug-dealers; the Pakistanis are terrorists; and the brave heroic Yanks are there to save the day, with their Jack-Bauer-inspired brand of summary justice. In a scene that could come from a Glenn Beck wet-dream, at the end of the film, the Ivy-League-educated protagonist, James Reece, overcomes his squeamishness about killing people to join up with his buddy Charlie Wax in a campaign of killing "bad guys".
And so, ladies and gentlemen, we have stepped through the looking glass. A Frenchman, Luc Besson, is peddling back to American mainstream cinema a vision of American chauvinism. I can't decide whether this is particularly insidious or just brilliant business.
The basic mechanics of the movie are the same as in most other Luc Besson-penned movies. As in TAKEN, a hard-ass American (John Travolta) comes to Paris to kick some Muslim terrorist ass. As in the TRANSPORTER movies, there will be a lot of driving really really fast through busy streets and some loud explosions. There will also be a lot of swearing and the occasional line that's trying to be as iconic as Arnie in TERMINATOR. (Is there any reason for John Travolta's character to be called Charlie Wax except to allow a lame KARATE KID joke? And for that matter, did they only cast John Travolta so that they could reference a Royale with Cheese?)
Still, for all that, I can't deny that FROM PARIS WITH LOVE zipped along at a pace, and wasn't as painfully shit as Besson's ANGEL-A. The stunts are fine; the car chases through the streets of Paris exhilarating; and John Travolta chews up the scenery. I even liked Jonathan Rhys Meyers as his square side-kick, Reece. In the one scene where Meyers gets to act - when he sees himself in a mirror covered in blood and his to react to his new life - he actually looks pretty convincing. The key point is that this movie is firmly in the B-grade of action flicks. It's treading well-worn ground and dripping in faintly offensive cliché. That they're being peddled by a Frenchman is about the most interesting thing about the whole enterprise.
FROM PARIS WITH LOVE was released in Spring 2010 and is available on DVD and on iTunes.
Additional tags: Frederic Thoraval, David Buckley, Richard Durden, Kasia Smutniak