French action flick hits the ground running
By Devin D. O’Leary
Directed by Pierre Morel
Cast: David Belle, Cyril Raffaelli
American action films, let’s face it, have been a stale lot for the last, oh, decade at least. When the best Hollywood can muster is formulaic crap like Bad Boys II, lovers of high-bodycount, low-wordcount cinema are left twiddling their thumbs. With action stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis gearing up to collect Social Security, is it any wonder that true action fans now turn their attentions overseas looking for that old cinematic hit of adrenaline?
They found it briefly last year when Thailander Tony Jaa made his breakout debut in the giddy martial arts skull-buster Ong-bak. Before that, it took a mixture of French and Asian filmmakers (and a British star) to add a little muscle to 2002’s The Transporter. In 2001, Cristophe Gans glued about 10 movie genres together and threw them to a French matinee idol (Samuel Le Bihan) and an Asian-American martial artist (Mark Dacascos), creating the mad mashup known as Brotherhood of the Wolf. Before that, of course, it was the fleet feet of Hong Kong king Jackie Chan that taught us all what action was really about. Seeing Chan tackle a bus full of baddies with only an umbrella in 1985’s Police Story pretty much rendered American action films obsolete.
So what’s next?
May I direct your short attention span to District B13. With this newest overseas import, American audiences are greeted by yet another heart-pumping knock-down-drag-out with nary an American accent in sight. If you’re looking for the future of action, you could do worse than to glue your glutes to a movie theater seat in front of this cult-phenomenon-in-the-making. The film is best described as a next gen martial arts flick--something between the acrobatic amazement of Jackie Chan and the streetwise cool of The Fast and the Furious.
The film, a sensation in its native France, stars David Belle. Belle is one of the cocreators of the urban sport known as Parkour (also sometimes called freerunning). Perhaps you’ve seen it in TV commercials. Parkour is the art of traversing vast urban expanses by jumping, leaping and tumbling over, under and around walls, rooftops and stairwells. It looks a little like extreme skateboarding, only without the skateboard, or suicide as performed by a stuntman. The objective is to surmount any obstacles in your path as quickly and fluidly as possible in one unbroken movement. I’ve long thought Parkour would look jaw-droppingly cool on film, and damned if District B13 doesn’t prove me right.
Belle plays Leïto, a sort of urban vigilante battling gangsters in near-future Paris. Seems that, in the year 2010, the French are fed up with all the crime happening in their multiethnic ghettos. The political stopgap solution is simple: Wall off all the ghettos and let them fend for themselves. (Conceptually, yes, District B13 steals a page or two from John Carpenter’s Escape from New York.)
The film begins with Leïto trying to take down an evil drug dealer named Naha (Larbi Naceri, who coscripted). Unfortunately, he fails to take into account the corrupt cops, who find it much easier to arrest Leïto and throw him in jail instead. Fast-forward six months. Badass undercover cop Damien (stuntman-turned-actor Cyril Raffaelli) has been recruited to retrieve a deadly neutron bomb, which has gone missing inside the walled-off ghetto of B13. Who better to team our super-cop up with, of course, than imprisoned ghetto Robin Hood Leïto?
The two are sent inside B13 to retrieve the bomb, which has conveniently been stolen by Leïto’s old nemesis Naha. To make things just a little more personal, Naha has also kidnapped Leïto’s cute sister (Dany Verissimo). And to make things just a bit more tense, the bomb is set to go off in 24 hours. (The way Naha figures it, he’s got 23 hours to sell it off.)
The setup for District B13 is simple as dirt: Toss your typical mismatched cop-criminal duo in with a bunch of colorful villains and start the timer ticking. By and large, fans of action don’t much care about plot intricacies, so long as the film pays off in action--which District B13 provides in spades. The screenplay, by French action king Luc Besson (The Professional, The Fifth Element) is far less cartoonish than his last writing-only assignment, the Jet Li vehicle Unleashed. The short-and-sweet script is helped along by some convincing, if not exactly Shakespearean, acting. Belle and Raffaelli project just the right amount of tough-guy grit and really pull out all the stops when it comes to the action scenes.
Belle’s sinewy escapes, hurling his body from one precarious balcony to another, are masterpieces of choreography. Raffaelli, on the other hand, is a takedown machine. His hard-hitting marital arts style is a great counterpoint to Belle’s nimble tricks.
No one would mistake it for Hitchcock or anything, but at a zippy 85 minutes, the momentum of District B13 never slacks. You want knuckle-crunching action? You want high-flying stunts? You want outrageous French accents? Check into the bruise-filled, ghetto-fabulous neighborhood of District B13.
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