Lagging the Popgeist: From Paris With Love

From Paris With Love (2009)

The title is a warning: From Paris With Love will attempt to compensate for the exhaustion of its ideas by outgunning the facile pleasures of earlier thrillers, most obviously the James Bond franchise. Yet it is only with the arrival of Charlie Wax (John Travolta, who fuses his performances in Pulp Fiction and The Taking of the Pelham 123 in order to recycle them) that it becomes apparent how empty pastiche can be. As the film unravels, the Pulp Fiction reference is revisited, a Training Day theme crops up, elements of District B-13 (an earlier film by director Pierre Morel) come into view– several scenes occur in the multicultural ghettoscape of a postmodern banlieue– in addition to a mishmash of War on Terror motifs: swarthy djellaba-wearing men, women in hijab, even a kind of Al-Qaeda sleeper agent in the form of James Reese’s (Jonathan Rhys-Meyer) erstwhile fiancee.

The promise of the title sequence– Parisian traffic and late afternoon sunlight backed by Madeline Peyroux’s plush vocal track— rapidly dissipates, not least when Johnathan Rhys-Meyers first speaks. His version of an American accent sounds note for note like Richard Pryor’s signature burlesque of a stereotypical honky– a strange juxtaposition with Travolta’s minstrel-lite appropriation of Black working-class vernacular. This raises a deeper issue, I think, in terms of white masculinity and racial masquerade. In his hammiest action-flick performances Travolta shades his elocution with verbal mannerisms that he implicitly thinks of as “Black”– i.e. “cool”– a kind of racial drag Eric Lott has identified as a (young, white, male) southernism (ex. first wave rockers like Elvis Presley) which has long since gone global. In other words Travolta’s vocal characterization (and body English) samples a fantasy of Black masculine identity practices– tart slang, broad inflections, loose posture, etc.– in order to accrue authority to itself.

If From Paris With Love is extravagant with its screen violence, it goes all coy with regard to the other half of the Bondian formula, sexual hedonism. While Travolta shoots Muslim men from every conceivable angle– while lying on the floor, striding through a Matrix-style spray of fragmenting plaster, even sliding down a pole upside down– his sexual prowess is only suggested– though of course in an eminently outré fashion, as when it is implied that Charlie Wax sodomizes a French-Algerian prostitute in a bathroom. Such crudity functions as a counterpart for the film’s racist invective and generalized Islamophobia: Wax refers to Pakistanis as “towelheads”, and the idea that not all Muslims are terrorists is definitively undercut when a character who makes this observation is revealed to be both.

Even so, the film is not without visual pleasures, in particular an early scene where James Reese sits inside his car in an underground car park. The play of shadows on Rhys-Meyer’s still-androgynous face gestures at the inscrutability of the twilight world of counter-terrorism he has been bidden into even as the metallic blue palette suggests a psychological chill. Strangely, however, the screen violence seems muted– perhaps because it has been overly choreographed and is usually accompanied by cheap sarcasm. Every slow-motion squirt of stage blood, every fetishized explosion, seems all too familiar, as if we’ve seen them too many times before. Which, in a sense, we have: whatever novelties are presented here, the mode of engagement itself is one of dull repetition. We could easily substitute deranged suicide bombers with robotic communists or simpering Nazis. And the semi-psychotic wisecracks narrating the violence are simply a cruder, stupider version of Bond.