New movies borrow from old movies every day of the week. It's an acceptable practice we describe as homage, a word derived from the French. From Paris With Love, a blithely violent film derived from something purporting to be a story idea of Luc Besson's more likely the idle firing of a pop-culture soaked synapse goes so deep into the territory of borrowing that it leaves respectable homage far behind. Directed by Pierre Morel (Taken), this pickpocket of a movie flashes open its coat to proudly display all its swiped goodies.
Let's start with John Travolta, who plays Charlie Wax, a special operations agent for an unnamed but extremely bloodthirsty undercover American agency. To inhabit this role, he seems to have stolen Bruce Willis's bald head, along with the goatee Willis sports when he needs to look super tough and mature. This gleaming-headed Wax man has been sent to Paris to bust a drug ring and a terrorist cell. As a bonus, he will give machismo lessons to James (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a wonky polyglot who works as an aide to the U.S. Ambassador but longs to be Jason Bourne.
Theirs is a classic Odd Couple/Lethal Weapon action-movie male pairing: lunatic meets gentleman, torrential rain of bullets follows. In between bouts of slaughtering dozens of people on the grounds that they appear to be of Asian or Middle Eastern descent, Charlie teases James. He mocks James's fondness for chess with the put-down "Do I look like I play board games?" He calls his new partner "pard," which is intended to make fun of the dorkiness of people who call each other "pard," but instead just makes Charlie seem dorky. He tosses dead bodies down the world's largest spiral staircase while James hangs back, horrified, clutching an urn full of cocaine (which most people would have left in the car). Charlie also has a quickie with a prostitute, snorts some of said cocaine on the Eiffel Tower and shoots a woman in the head at a dinner party. Yet still, the conviction of his cool eludes him. You don't realize how gifted with cool Willis actually is until you watch Travolta trying to be him.
In the interest of full disclosure, in its final stretch From Paris With Love is inadvertently hilarious (Rhys Meyers gets most of the intended laughs; he's halfway to good in this mess). The dramatic climax involving a beautiful suicide bomber is particularly funny. The revelation that she is bad to the bone leads to great bafflement on the part of her former fiancé, who is crushed by her betrayal. "She never talked about her life, and I never thought to ask," he says. Could screenwriter Adi Hasak possibly have come up with a better line illustrating the depth of this beautiful love?
But that's not the worst of Hasak's tone-deaf script. As you're watching Travolta lumber through his stunts here, his Pulp Fiction comeback seems like a sweet, distant memory. That is, until Hasak works in a direct reference to one of Travolta's iconic bits from that film, the speech about a "Royale with cheese." Travolta delivers his 2010 version of his 1994 lines with the good humor you'd expect from an essentially likeable actor, but its very presence signifies something wistful and sad. Travolta is dolled up in his cool suit, waiting to be touched by coolness again. "Tell me that wasn't some impressive [expletive deleted]," Charlie says at one point. Would that it were.