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Overall Rating

Awesome: 33.33%
Worth A Look65.33%
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9 reviews, 21 user ratings

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District B13
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Hey, Ratner--this is what a great action film is supposed to look like!"
5 stars

For all of you who have somewhat disappointed by the first wave of summer blockbusters, I have some good news and bad news. The good news is that “District B13" is a knockout of a film that contains practically everything that one could hope for such a creation–it moves like a rocket, is funny and exciting, pays effective homage to its cinematic forefathers, contains action sequences that will make even the most jaded audience member sit up and say “Damn!” and even manages to work in enough social commentary to give it a little more weight than one commonly finds in a contemporary genre exercise. Therefore, it pains me more than usual to have to give you the bad news, which is that there is a pretty good chance that most of you won’t get a chance to see it on a big screen in America unless you leave near a major city.

You see, the film is in French and there is still the assumption that, outside of the occasional martial arts epic like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or “Hero,” most American audiences simply won’t stand to watch a film in which they need to read the dialogue–even something as exciting and crowd-pleasing as “Run Lola Run,” a film that could have easily played like gangbusters in any American multiplex, was pretty much consigned to the arthouse ghetto for this very reason. This is a shame because it means that a film that contains more genuine thrills and excitement than such lugubrious efforts as “Mission: Impossible III,” “The Da Vinci Code” and “X-Men: The Last Stand” combined is likely to be overlooked by the very audience that would respond to it the most–the average moviegoer who has grown weary of formulaic spectacles and is thirsting for something new and different. The only hope is that enough of those people make the effort to seek out “District B13" for themselves and pass the word on to their friends that this, at last, is the pop-art spectacular that they have been waiting for.

Set in the not-too-distant future, we learn from the opening title cards that a certain area of Paris, District B13, has become so overrun with crime, drugs and gangs that the government has decided that the best way to handle the problem is to simply contain it by building an enormous wall around the area and turning it into a no-man’s-land that is run by all-around no-goodnik Taha (Bibi Naceri, who also co-wrote the film). There are still a few good people in the area, however, and one of them is the heroic Leito (David Belle), a young man who has determined to take on Taha and his men single-handedly. After interrupting a drug deal and stealing the merchandise, Taha’s soldiers, led by enormous henchman K2 (Tony D’Amario) storm Leito’s building in order to take him down. This inspires on of the great action scenes in recent years in which Leito utilizes the architecture of the high-rise building–nimbly bouncing off the walls and sliding through impossibly small spaces–to escape in a sequence that contains the kind of energy, humor and precision movement that reminded me of the immortal “Make ‘Em Laugh” number from “Singin In the Rain.” (I understand that Belle is utilizing a self-devised form of martial arts known as parkour–loosely translated as “free running”–in these and other scenes and even more astonishingly, he isn’t using wires or tricks for the vast majority of these scenes.)

Unfortunately, this doesn’t impress Taha that much and he decides to neutralize Leito by kidnapping his sister, the feisty Lola (Dany Verissimo), and killing him when he comes to rescue her. However, Leito gets the drop on Taha by somehow infiltrating his impregnable fortress (the film kind of glosses over how he accomplishes that) and he and Lola manage to escape the district by taking Taha along as a hostage. Leito’s idealism gets the better of him, though, and when he decides to turn Taha into the nearest police station, everything quickly goes to hell as the cops, who are on the kingpin’s payroll, lock up Leito while Taha walks away scot-free, taking Lola along with him in order to turn her into his personal pet (literally–leash and everything) after stringing her out on heroin.

Six months later, Taha’s men hijack a truck and discover that it contains nothing less than a nuclear bomb, accidentally tripping a mechanism that will cause it to blow unless it can be shut down. The only man capable of doing this is maverick cop Damien (Cyril Raffaelli), a loner who prefers to do things his way and by himself. However, he needs someone who knows the layout of Taha’s compound and that person, inevitably, Leito. Eventually, the two pair up and infiltrate the district with only an hour or so to defeat Taha (who, having failed to find a buyer, has rigged it into a missile and is now aiming it at the Eiffel Tower and demanding 20 million Euros from the government) and his men , rescue Lola from the fate that befalls all sexy, drugged-out waifs without modeling contracts and stop the bomb from going off and killing thousands of people. I wouldn’t dream of revealing what happens next but it does involves any number of outlandish stunts, a few unexpected twists and the arrival of a bad guy who is known only as “The Yeti” and who definitely comes as advertised.

“District B13" is yet another dazzling extravaganza from the astonishingly productive mind of filmmaker Luc Besson–although the last film he personally directed was 1999's “The Messenger” (though he has two, the low-budget fantasy “Angel-A” and the animated epic “Arthur and the Minimoys,” scheduled for release in the near future), he has, according to IMDB, been involved as a producer with no less than 56 feature films since then and has contributed to the screenplay of 19 of them. While “District B13" is credited to Pierre Morel, a cinematographer on such films as “Unleashed” and the “Transporter” films (all produced by you-know-who), it has enough of the familiar Besson touches to suggest that either Besson had a heavy influence on the proceedings or Morel knew exactly what to deliver in order to impress his boss. Visually, the film is stunning–Besson and his crew know how to stage a fight scene for the cameras to register maximum impact without relying too heavily on post-production tricks or heavy-handed editing to juice things up and even the quieter moments (or as quiet as the film ever gets) usually contain a quirky detail or two that make you sit up and take notice.

In terms of the characters, Morel and Besson wisely concentrate on the obvious assets of their performers–the fierce physicality of Raffaelli and Belle, the spunky and waifish charm of Verissimo (and perhaps the only major flaw of the film is that, having given her such a great introduction, she winds up chained to a nuclear missile in a heroin fog for the rest of the time) and Naceri’s cheerful willingness to go over-the-top-and-beyond in every single scene (his character seems to have based every single detail of his life–from his dress to his demise–on the Al Pacino’s version of Tony Montana–and allow those details to carry the show on the assumption that things will be moving so quickly that no one will notice the relative lack of character development. And yes, there are also moments of goofball humor amidst the chaos that Besson seems to dote on–I liked Taha’s reaction when he discovers that his men have accidentally tripped the 24-hour timer on the bomb (“You have 23 hours to find a buyer!”) and the scene in which Damien is forced to do battle with a steering wheel handcuffed to his wrist.

At the same time, “District B13" is not just another live-action cartoon–the fight scenes are reasonably realistic and there is nothing as cheerfully goofy as the crane snagging the bomb from the undercarriage of the flying car in “Transporter 2"–and it also contains strains of cynical social commentary amidst the carnage that elevate it from being just another piece of eye candy from Besson’s cinematic confectionary–so much so, in fact, that it feels at times like the work of the always-caustic John Carpenter and not just because the film essentially lifts the premise of his classic “Escape from New York.” Although clearly a action exercise first and foremost, the film manages to also capture the sense of ongoing class conflict (with the wall that allows the haves to ignore the problem by essentially hiding away the have-nots) in modern-day France that wound up exploding into violence in the streets of the city last autumn. The old notion of the corrupting influence of power also gets a workout here as well as both heroes and villains alike find that their superiors are less concerned with the welfare of the people they represent and more interested in the accumulation of wealth and power regardless of the cost. The only real difference is that “District B13" goes for a more optimistic ending that at least hints at a better future while the bleaker Carpenter would have been content to let everything literally go up in flames.

“District B13" is a great action film that beats most such efforts like a gong and I cannot imagine any American audience not responding to its canny mix of humor, thrills and astounding stunts despite the presence of French accents and subtitles–after all, good guys, bad guys, nuclear bombs and looming time limits are as universal of narrative devices as anyone could hope for. Unfortunately, most of you may not get the chance to experience it on the big screen unless the film somehow manages to emulate its heroes and busts out of the ghetto to which it has been consigned because of its origins. All I can say is that if you live in a city lucky enough to be showing it, you should high-tail it to the theater as soon as you can–trust me, the other heavily promoted films will still be there when you get back. If you aren’t that lucky, I would recommend organizing a road trip with some like-minded fans of the genre–I assure you that no matter how far you have to go, “District B13" is worth the trip.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=12230&reviewer=389
originally posted: 06/02/06 00:17:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2005 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Independent Film Festival of Boston For more in the 2006 Independent Film Festival of Boston series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Deep Focus Film Fest For more in the 2006 Deep Focus Film Fest series, click here.

User Comments

1/15/09 Shaun Wallner Very Interesting 4 stars
2/01/08 rome Dany Verissimo as Lola was simply gorgeous. The movie was worth it just to see her. 5 stars
4/02/07 mario great movie 5 stars
1/13/07 Tanya Fun to watch, the action scenes were great but the film was short 5 stars
10/23/06 chris yes this film is really good as im into Le Parkour 5 stars
9/08/06 danthewrestlingman Not since Drive(mark dacascos) has an action film impressed me this much 5 stars
8/27/06 Tom Rx Really good film especially if your into parkour 5 stars
6/14/06 Ricardo good action film 4 stars
6/13/06 burton miller i wish i had known it was directed by the same asshole that directed 'transporter 2' 1 stars
6/13/06 Mase Mindless fun, charasmatic stars, and a great pulsing techno soundtrack. 4 stars
6/06/06 Darren Shea A well-constructed, exciting action film - why can't American dumb actioners be this good? 4 stars
6/06/06 Karl It was fun and entertaining. Lots of good action/stunt. 4 stars
6/02/06 KingNeutron Great action sequences, some good lines. Recommended. 4 stars
6/01/06 San Lamar good 5 stars
5/30/06 Jeremy The talent displayed here is astounding... Felt like I was hooked to an iv of adrenaline 5 stars
4/23/06 Panda-chan This is one ridiculously awesome movie. Belle does an amazing job of showing parkour. 5 stars
4/13/06 SCYTHER Good parkour scenes 5 stars
3/29/06 Alicia Awesome 5 stars
3/16/06 Rebecca It's a dumb action movie, but it's a good dumb action movie. 4 stars
10/24/05 The Almighty Zero Mind-blowing, gravity-defying action movie! Wonderful choreography and great eye candy! 5 stars
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  02-Jun-2006 (R)
  DVD: 05-Sep-2006



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