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District B13

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 06/01/06 18:28:02

"Parcourse? No, Parkour. See "District B13" to find out more."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

French filmmaker Luc Besson, best known stateside for "La Femme Nikita," "The Professional," and "The Fifth Element," has made a lucrative career as a writer/producer (he has over 70 films credited to him as a producer), with writing or story credits on another 30 films. Besson has put aside whatever artistic aspirations he may have once had, instead preferring to write and produce formula-driven films for the mass market. His output may be short on artistic merit, but it's hard not to admire a filmmaker as consistently successful as Besson, if only for his commercial instincts. Case in point, 2004's "Banlieue 13" ("District B13"), a modernized, Gallic riff on John Carpenter's "Escape From New York" helmed by cinematographer-turned-director Pierre Morel with the competent efficiency and semi-anonymity typical of Besson's collaborators.

Cue title card: Paris, 2010. With violent crime on the rise, the French authorities have decided to build a wall around the District B13 of the title. The police have retreated outside the wall. Social services, including hospitals and schools, have been discontinued. Segue into a rapid-fire traveling shot (aided by CGI) in and around B13. Criminal gangs battle for control. Drug addiction is rampant. One of B13's residents, Leito (David Belle), refuses to accept the status quo. Despite having a well-armed gang of his own (he seems to own and operate an apartment building), Leito refuses to participate in the drug trade. He does more than that, though.

As Banlieue 13 opens, a thuggish gangster, K2 (Tony D'Amario), appears at Leito's apartment building, demanding the return of his merchandise. K2 works for Taha (Bibi Naceri, who also co-wrote Banlieue 13), B13's reigning crime boss. As K2 easily makes his way past Leito's inattentive, ill-prepared guards and into Leito's apartment, Leito destroys 20 kilos of heroin. K2 and Taha aren't happy. Leito escapes across B13's rooftops. At Tahaís direction, K2 kidnaps Leito's sister, Lola (Dany Verissimo), from her workplace to force Leitoís surrender. Leito, though, is one step ahead of K2 and Taha.

Several reversals later, Leito has been thrown into prison in the outside world, while Lola languishes inside B13 (Taha has turned Lola into a drug addict). Enter Damien (Cyril Raffaelli, a Gallic Jason Statham), an undercover French police officer. After Taha and his men steal an advanced weapon, a neutron bomb, Damien enlists Leito as his reluctant guide, offering Leito his help in getting Lola back. Damien and Leito have less than 20 hours to accomplish their task (the bomb is set to go off then unless Damien punches in a cancellation code). The stage is then set for set piece after set piece and, at least on that level, Banlieue 13 rarely disappoints.

From all appearances, Besson and Naceri spent little time on the screenplay. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Carpenter's Escape From New York will see more than a few resemblances between the two films. Future dystopia? Check. Cynical anti-hero? Check. Walled in city ruled by criminals? Check. Duplicitous government bureaucrats? Check. A deadline driven storyline constructed around a missing weapon or person? Check. Gunplay and hand-to-hand combat? Check again. What Banlieue 13 does differently is almost purely cosmetic, splitting protagonists (unnecessarily), adding a female character (unnecessary if you only had one protagonist), and modernizing the fight and chase scenes, emphasizing close combat over gunplay. Besson and Naceri also try to throw in some social context and commentary, but given everything that's come beforehand, it comes off as tacked on and unearned.

Not surprisingly, Banlieue 13 excels where we expect it to excel, in the action set pieces, especially the fight or flight scenes featuring David Belle. Relatively unknown stateside, Belle is known Europe as one of the early originators of Parkour, a mix of martial arts and extreme sports. Parkour emphasizes moving as quickly and efficiently on and over city-side obstacles (think Jackie Chanís urban flicks without the slapstick or, better yet, Tony Jaa in Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior). In the most dynamic action scene in the entire film, Belle escapes K2's men through and above several apartment buildings, running at breakneck pace, jumping and falling large distances (apparently without the aid of supporting wires or CGI).

The second best scene occurs near the end, when, in homage to Bruce Lee's uncompleted martial arts film, Game of Death (and Escape From New York), Leito and Damien take on a massive, bald fighter twice their size, the Yeti (Jerome Paquatte), using their speed, agility, and quick thinking to defeat him. Alas, the Yeti ends up being the last obstacle before Leito and Damien reach the still ticking bomb. Four or five other fighters, in sequence, would have been preferable, building tension and suspense until we encountered the last, most dangerous opponent (e.g., the "boss" character in videogames), not to mention stacking a series of opponents to take on the heroes would have been closer to the homage Besson and his collaborators intended here.

Calling Cyril Raffaelli the Gallic Jason Statham isn't far off the mark. Raffaelli has worked as stuntman and fight choreographer for Luc Besson, including "The Transporter" series (it wouldn't come as a surprise if he's subbed for Statham for the more dangerous stunt work, given Raffaelli's physical resemblance to Statham). But it's Belle's film from start to finish. He has the most to do and his stunt work will make even the most hardened genre fans sit up and take notice. That might not be much for more discriminating filmgoers, but for action fans looking for an adrenaline rush or two, it should be enough.

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