Thursday, February 4, 2010

Romance, violence: same old, same old

Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried in a borefest.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers, John Travolta try to kick butt.

Without romance and action, we probably could reduce the size of every 25-screen multiplex by at least two thirds. So it's hardly surprising that we move into February with examples from each of these venerable genres leading the way. Sadly, neither Dear John nor From Paris With Love serves as a role models for their respective genres. It's also possible to argue that these two movies - though radically different - teach us virtually nothing about their subjects, assuming you can say that the dizzying, dippy From Paris With Love even has a subject.

Dear John, adapted from a Nicholas Sparks' novel of the same name, tells the story of a soldier who falls for a college student. Their romance is put through a wringer of obstacles - many arriving on screen as if they were little more than afterthoughts. This is especially surprising because we're talking about issues as potentially volatile as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, terminal cancer and autism.

That's an awfully full plate for a romance that feels drastically undernourished and which offers - near as I could determine - only one pleasure, the balm to the senses that comes from beach settings in South Carolina, where much of the story takes place.

We might as well focus on the movie's main and most crippling liability, the lead actors and the characters they play, Savannah Curtis and John Tyree, portrayed by Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum. Seyfried, best known for her work on HBO's Big Love, looks so young that it's difficult to accept her in any romance that doesn't involve a corsage and a prom. Tatum, who plays a Special Forces soldier, seems to have been encouraged toward a stinginess of expression that suggests soul and suffering.

It's not exactly earthshaking to say that big-screen romances depend on the sparks that are ignited by the actors. I'm not sure you could start a campfire with the heat that Seyfried and Tatum generate as their characters are pushed through a variety of circumstances that inspire either yawning indifference or an unfortunate awareness that the screenwriters are straining to find ways to impinge on the romance. Savannah and John meet while John is on leave and living with his father (Richard Jenkins), a reclusive soul whose mental impairments have turned him into an obsessive coin collector. He also cooks a lot of lasagna.

Sparks' sentimental novels make easy targets for critics. So, too, the movie, which has been directed without distinction by Lasse Hallstrom, a Swedish-born director whose Hollywood record is spotty, including audience favorites such as What's Eating Gilbert Grape , Chocolat and The Cider House Rules, as well as missed opportunities such as The Shipping News.

Watching Dear John, I wondered what a master of melodrama such as Douglas Sirk (Imitation of Life) might have done with this material. Sirk would have exaggerated and pushed the emotional pedal to the metal. He would have given the movie operatic amplitude, instead of producing what amounts to romantic easy listening.

But Sirk is long gone, and Dear John stands as a bona fide yawner that probably will serve only one notable purpose; it will provide a place for Sparks' legion of fans to convene for popcorn and group sighs.

Now, onto the action.....

From Paris With Love boasts the kind of pedigree that's bound to tempt action junkies. It did me. The movie stars John Travolta in Pulp Fiction mode - only with a shaved head and goatee. It has been directed by Pierre Morel, who also directed the sneering revenge drama Taken, as well as District 13, an irresistible piece of French martial arts mayhem. If you need more by the way of credentials, know that the movie is based on a story by Luc Besson, the French writer/director with his own action track record and a flare for lavish overstatement. Witness The Fifth Element.

These filmmakers have a flare for preposterous action that's so overindulged in From Paris With Love that the movie threatens to collapse under tons of scattered impulses. Let's face it: The line between preposterous and dumb can be awfully thin, and From Paris With Love crosses it early and often.

The movie teams Travolta with Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Meyers portrays James Reese, an embassy assistant who aspires to become a full-fledged CIA operative. Early on Reese hooks up with Travolta's Charlie Wax, a blustering, high octane CIA nut job with method behind his obvious madness. Perhaps knowing that the movie would be rife with explosions, Travolta tries to compete with bursts of profanity and clownish exaggeration. It should be impossible to go over the top in a movie this wild, but I think Travolta managed to do it.

Morel adopts a cut-and-slash approach to editing that makes the action - everything from Uzi-sprayed ceilings to blurry car chases - frenetic without being entirely comprehensible. The story -- which peels back layers of plot to get at (what else?) a terrorist threat - - is little more than scaffolding on which to hang an extensive but meaningless body count.

Amid the chaos, Travolta and Meyers do their version of an odd-couple routine. At one point, Meyers' character carries a vase full of cocaine through a couple of shootouts, a ploy that's more confounding than funny. Amid the furor, he also tries to stay in touch with his fiance (Kasia Smutniak). He's being tested throughout, building toward the all-important question that every would-be CIA agent must answer: When it really matters, can he pull the trigger?

Here's the thing about movies such as From Paris With Love: They needn't make sense, but they do require that their rampant violence be accompanied by a subversive sense of fun, a delight in the intricacies that the filmmakers weave into their energetic set pieces. You can find an example in Morel's own work. Just rent District 13.

As for From Paris With Love. Lots of bullets fly, but too few hit any truly entertaining targets.

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