Friday, June 2, 2006
All right, I will confess that I'm an action junkie andDistrict B13
offers a heady rush in what was looking like a dry summer action season. But just asShaun of the Dead
was a horror film for both horror fans and people who don't like horror,District B13
is an action film for action junkies as well as people who may not like action. The reason: it has such an energetic exuberance that it's hard to resist.
District B13 features what can be described as a French-inspired urban extreme sport known as parkour or free running. Parkour is basically running very fast and overcoming any obstacle that comes in your way without ever backtracking, stopping or slowing down. It's insane forward movement that can take a runner across rooftops, down flights of stairs, and over, under or through railings, fences and cars. The film's lead actor, David Belle, is one of the co-founders of parkour, which has been featured in the French film Yamakasi (2001), in an inspired BBC TV spot and in American shows such as CSI . A parkour website offers up some breathtaking videos but with a 'don't try this at home' warning. And District B13 should carry the same disclaimer because it makes amazing stunts look so effortless as it revels in the delight of bodies in exquisite motion. Yet while the film makes use of parkour, it's never a slave to it. Parkour merely serves as the action style of the two main characters and it gives the film its amazingly fresh vigor.
France's Luc Besson scripted District B13 . Besson (who directed Subway, La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element ) has become a French cinematic institution as he writes, produces and directs the films that pull in big bucks at the box office both at home and abroad. For B13 he chose Pierre Morel as director. Morel had been the cinematographer on two films Besson has produced' Transporter 2 and Unleashed 'both action films. For B13 , Besson and Morel essentially mix elements from Escape from New York , Jackie Chan movies and the recent Thai film Ong Bak .
B13 refers to an area in Paris in the near future. This particular area is high in crime and low in income. It's a problem spot that the government has given up on and has decided to simply wall off the offending area'the same way the criminals in New York were walled into their prison and left to their own devices in John Carpenter's Escape From New York . Leito (David Belle) was born and raised in the B13 district and he's fed up with the crime and the way the government abandoned the law abiding citizens still living within the walls. In one of the film's early scenes, Leito sabotages a mob drug deal and then has to outrun the hulking henchmen. From the moment Leito flies out the apartment door and leaps over the mobsters'seeming to walk up hallway walls'the film has you hooked. The plot may smack of formula and the story may follow a familiar course but the action combined with the unpretentiousness of Morel's direction invest the familiar with fresh life.
Although Leito flees the mob, the local cops (who are closing up shop and getting ready to leave B13 literally to the mob) end up betraying him. The result is that the mob gets Leito's sister, while Leito kills a cop and then lands in jail. Fast forward to six months later. Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) is an undercover cop who's just been given the assignment of having to go to B13 to recover a stolen nuclear missile that just happens to be in the hands of the same mobster who has Leito's sister. So Damien decides to break Leito out of prison in the hopes that the former B13 resident can get him inside and to the missile so he can disarm it.
The story is simple and straightforward, and Morel and Besson don't pretend it's anything more than it is. Their approach is lean and mean as they barrel ahead with the same dexterity as Belle navigates the streets of Paris. They pair Belle up with Raffaelli, a former stunt double for Jean-Claude Van Damme. Raffaelli had worked for Besson in the past as a stunt man and occasional actor (he fought Jet Li at the end of the Besson produced Kiss of the Dragon ). Raffaelli is not a parkour specialist but he takes to the sport with skill and agility. He and Belle, who get to go at each other at the end, are just amazing human special effects. The film claims to be CGI-free so all the stunts you see are done without the benefit of wires or blue screens. Morel, taking his cue from Jackie Chan (who actually took his cue from dancer Gene Kelly), shoots most of the action wide and without excessive cutting. This pulls us into the action and makes us appreciate the talent of the two leads. The action scenes also recall the recent Ong Bak in which Tony Jaa navigated the streets of Thailand with similar exuberance and furious speed.
B13 has a rebel spirit, and in a manner similar to John Carpenter's Escape from New York , it displays a satiric edge as it takes potshots at corrupt government officials and the hypocrisy of those at the top. It also possesses a driving pop/rap score that perfectly compliments the action.
District B13 (rated R for language, violence, drug use and sexual content) is a perfect summer action film and it quite simply kick butt on anything coming out of Hollywood at the moment.
Companion viewing: Escape From New York, Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior, Time and Tide (watch for a chase through an apartment building like the one that opens B13 ) -----