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Fists of French Fury

To Paris With Love and District 13: Ultimatum bring the pain (eat your heart out, John Woo).

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The extreme violence of this week’s releases suggests that larky or tragic, message-y or escapist, things go better with blood. From Paris With Love and District 13: Ultimatum prove the Frenchies have somersaulted over the Chinese in delivering acrobatic action pictures. Their formula is martial arts plus homegrown parkour (or l’art du déplacement), which Wikipedia defines as overcoming “any obstacle within one’s path by adapting one’s movements to the environment”—the environment being, in this case, fire escapes, rooftops, or any setting swarming with men and automatic weapons. Pierre Morel, a former cinematographer and current ace director in the Luc Besson stable, made the first District 13, the rousing Taken, and now the big-budget From Paris With Love, a mismatched-buddy thriller starring John Travolta with a big bald dome and wispy goatee as a gonzo but disciplined American agent, and Jonathan Rhys Myers as his by-the-book pointy-headed sidekick. Unlike most bloated modern action flicks, this is a hair over 90 minutes and goes by even more quickly. In scene after masterly scene, hordes of bad guys turn into blood-spurting pinwheels that hit the ground the instant you manage to breathe out. Exhalations become gasps of amazement.

Morel will inevitably be compared to John Woo, whom he trounces. He has fewer mannerisms (no damn doves) and a keener eye; his fastest, most kinetic shots flow together like frames in a flipbook. When he interrupts that flow for a snatch of slow motion, you see the lyricism of a warrior at full extension or the floppy-limbed contortions of a body flung to its doom. The beefy Travolta isn’t the first actor to spring to mind in connection with lightning reflexes, but he’s souped up and limber, elated by his own Zen prowess, and the choreography is so expert that I never detected the stuntmen substitutions. But Morel’s drollest scene represents the art of taking away. Travolta bursts through a door at the top of a circular staircase while Rhys Myers waits below as one body after another sails or bounces or crunches past him. Merveilleux!

Another Besson confrère, Patrick Alessandrin, takes over in District 13: Ultimatum, which reunites Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle as a bald supercop and a tattooed underworld Robin Hood—muscular, compact parkour masters for whom every building is a collection of ladders, slides, and trapezes for making one’s escape. It’s campier than its predecessor, but its gung ho union of black, white, and Asian gangs against reactionaries who’d destroy them is a virtuosic assertion of punky Parisian multiculturalism.

Despite his reverence for the New Testament, Mel Gibson will do anything for an excuse to not turn the other cheek. In the brutal conspiracy thriller Edge of Darkness, his first acting gig in years, Gibson is a Boston police detective who turns vigilante to punish those behind the death of his daughter. This isn’t so much a departure as a grim distillation of all that came before. The formula, as always, is Make Mel Mad: Kidnap or kill his kid or wife and he will hurt you. The drama of the past decade has certainly hurt him: His face is not so much wrinkled as creviced by rage, his Aussie jauntiness long gone. He’s stripped down to pure righteous anger. Edge of Darkness is a meathead revenge picture, but it’s very satisfying. Director Martin Campbell, coming off Casino Royale, has a style that’s blunt and bruising, and the shootings are what violence mavens call “wet”—i.e., with maximum splatter. The audience goes nuts when Gibson taunts a bad guy and hypernuts when he blows one away. He’s a ferociously committed actor with a gift for making his bad vibes contagious.

Go to my blog The Projectionist for longer reviews of the stunning Ajami, a mournful tapestry of carnage co-directed by the Israeli Yaron Shani and the Palestinian Scandar Copti: One revenge killing leads to two leads to four, and no one survives the moral miasma of the Palestinian territories; The Red Riding Trilogy, three hideously bleak, Yorkshire-set features based on incantatory novels by David Peace, in which the bottom falls out of the standard serial-killer policier and would-be do-gooders plunge into a hopeless thicket of police corruption; and Terribly Happy, a nifty Danish rural noir that redefines “happily ever after” as “What’s buried in the bog can’t hurt you.”

From Paris With Love
Lionsgate. R.

District 13: Ultimatum
Magnet Releasing. R.

Edge of Darkness
Warner Bros. Pictures. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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