District B13 (AKA Banlieue 13)
Oh, what a feeliiiiiiiiiin.... dancin' on the ceiliiiiiin
You know, I've always argued that the best response to urban terrorism would be to jump about like a cat quite literally on a hot tin roof, leaping from balcony to balcony, bouncing off walls and ceilings, darting through impossibly small openings at crazy, inhuman angles and kicking lots of people with the names of mountains shaved into the backs of their heads incredibly hard in the face. And I thought no one was listening... except Luc Besson! Yes, you might have noticed that the Crazy French Guy who gave us La Femme Nikita, Leon, and, slightly less credibly The Fifth Element has of late been knocking out story treatments and screenplays for high-concept pap such as Taxi, The Transporter (gah...) and now District B13. Only slightly less ludicrous in it's conception than Transporter 2, Distric B13 builds an action movie around the sport of parkour, that being the "urban free running" you have no doubt heard so much about.
For those not in the know, parkour generally involves performing insane stunts in built up areas with no safety net while running about like a loony, showing off your obligatory washboard stomach by not wearing a t-shirt and, preferably, sporting a bleeding edge haircut. It's in this territory we find ourselves with director Pierre Morel, whose prior Besson collaborations include the aforementioned The Transporter and, more significantly, maligned Jet Li enterprise Unleashed (AKA Danny The Dog). Not necessarily a startling track record, but here at theOneliner everybody gets a second chance. Except J---a R-----s of course. The plot centres around the titular Parisian housing district which, due to increasing crime and the general cool, cigarette smoking apathy of the French (their only redeeming feature), has been isolated from the rest of the city by a very big wall indeed, the only way in or out being via heavily guarded police checkpoints.
Via some arbitrary contrivance or another an armed gang of drug pushers fronted by Taha (Bibi Naceri) and operating within the district have come into the possession of a rather swish neutron bomb with which they hold the district to ransom. Seizing the ideal opportunity to clean up the area and let someone else take the blame, the French authorities call the terrorists' bluff and await the particle storm that will wash their political woes away. It seems only undercover cop Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) and urban sprite of poorly-defined purpose Le?to (David Belle) can save the day, especially since the latter's sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) has been captured by Taha and rendered a drug-addled whore. But can both men kick enough people violently in the face in rapid succession to save the day?
My expectations for this movie were virtually nil, especially given its pedigree and my general hatred of the French for which I make no apology. However, not for the first time this month I found myself eating humble pie as in the grand, cosmic scheme of all things cinematic District B13 proves an engaging enough little slice of action hokum. It might not have the budget of The Fifth Element, but jumping from one roof to another four stories down across the street costs precisely zero francs (even if you are kind of offering your life as a deposit), and it's with this very well choreographed stunt-foolery that District B13 picks up a lot of it's slack. Jason Statham may recently have loped two crashing vehicles with the aid of some CG, but here our daring protagonists pull off the same feat with nary the aid of a wire or green screen.
It's the kind of daring, balls-out stunt work that made Ong Bak and it's sequel so much fun, and while the peril may not be so sustained here, when the action does kick off it does so with commendable gusto and a kinetic energy that suggests Jackie Chan cross-bred with a coke-snorting Tigger. Still, there's only so much ground one can make up with crunching teeth and flattened noses, and as is par for the course with Besson the script is thinner than your average flannel. I'm sure old Luc would like to believe that underneath the kick-ass moves there's a political subtext about urban development and government responsibility, but if you buy that then, well, you probably bought The Transporter on DVD too. Fortunately the intricacies of French sociology in the context of government sanctioned conurbation aren't considered for more than a nanosecond before the next set of spectacles gets well and truly hooked from the face of a stock goon, and this nippy pace papers over the cracks sufficiently well given the requirements of the genre.
Of all the pulp fare Besson's been penning of late this is definitely up there with the best of them, although that sounds incredibly like damning with faint praise. All of the hallmarks are there; gritty urban setting, unlikely martial arts prowess, improbably spunky stocking-clad women caked in grime and the alarmingly prevalent pursuit of thrusting guns in wide angle camera lenses, and if that's your bag you'll probably find very little to fault here. Those after a spot of sophistication are unlikely to benefit, besides which they're probably next door in a screening of Dead Man's Chest chortling about how "wonderfully bohemian" Johnny Depp is. It might not set the world alight, but if you've 90 minutes to kill and a fear of/allergy to pirates then District B13 might just leap across it in sufficient style.
David Belle (Le?to)
Bibi Naceri (Taha)