Jonathan Rhys Meyers, left, and CIA man John Travolta star in the violent,… (Rico Torres / Lionsgate )
Stupid fun, "From Paris With Love" doesn't do much for Paris or love, or your brain cells, but it flies like a crazed eagle on uppers and comes from the talented, propulsive schlocketeer Pierre Morel. A former cinematographer who learned to light brutality stylishly under the tutelage of international violence impresario Luc Besson, Morel turns his kinetic eye to a tale (story by Besson, script by Adi Hasak) of a low-level spy and Paris embassy functionary, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. He lives a fine life in Paris with his fiancée (Kasia Smutniak) but longs for more, job-wise.
Bammo! Fortune smiles and he teams up for an anti-terrorist assignment with a visiting American intelligence ace named Charlie Wax, played by John Travolta. Half of Paris, mainly Asians and Arabs, is dead or dying 40 minutes into this 92-minute bleed-for-all, and when he's not executing, Wax is dallying with one of the locals or snorting cocaine atop the Eiffel Tower.
The Irish-born Rhys Meyers, cast wondrously against type, plays a guy from the Bronx(!) who seems like such a dissembling bloke in his initial scenes you assume it must be some sort of deception. He spends a good deal of the movie lugging around a vase full of blow (it's crime-scene evidence), and before long "From Paris With Love" threatens to become a story of a miscast actor and his big blue prop.
But the melees! They are heinously destructive and rather good. "Talkin' ain't gonna do the job, man!" hollers Travolta's Wax to his partner, and before you can say "Rush Hour 3" it's clear that "From Paris With Love" is a whole lot better than anything Brett Ratner ever rushed out. A whole lot better. The mayhem is relentless but the staging and editing make spatial and rhythmic sense. They're borderline-pure chaos, but on this side of the border.
Morel had a big hit with "Taken," the one with Liam Neeson wiping out sex-enslaving Albanians with low intentions toward his daughter. I found that film's mixture of "heart" and slaughter sort of galling. "From Paris With Love" has the advantage of not dealing too seriously with humans of any stripe. It's more about the crockery and the glass and the splintered wood. The chases remain visually coherent and often exciting even when they're being guided by such sights as Travolta wielding a bazooka.
Or my favorite: the demise early on, orchestrated by Wax, of a string of anonymous gunmen who plummet down a very high stairwell, one at a time. Travolta sends up his insane-CIA-op role even as he serves it, efficiently and with a droll air of camp.
I wish Travolta didn't have to pull a "Royale with cheese" gag in honor of "Pulp Fiction." A little early for that stuff, isn't it? Makes me think of De Niro doing Travis Bickle jokes in "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle." Besides: This whole movie is a joke -- a delirious one. Inside jokes have a way of taking us out of it.