Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Review - District B13

There’s style over substance and then there’s Luc Besson. In the past decade Besson’s name has become a byword for flashy, slick and generic actions films which display a blatant disregard for such fripperies as character or story to concentrate on elaborate fight scenes and huge explosions. Besson hasn’t directed these films - having not directed since 1999’s atrocious Joan of Arc - but instead he has acted as producer and often writer on the pictures, allowing a number of young directors to take the reins.

Films like The Transporter, Transporter 2, Unleashed and the Taxi series have rarely provided anything worth commenting upon. They’re broadly entertaining, if you like that sort of thing, and they offer plenty of undemanding, slick and utterly disposal action. District B13 initially looks like it will just be more of the same from the Besson stable, but this one is a little different.
District B13 has a gimmick. The film has been selling itself as “the free running movie”, as the two central actors are experts in the field of Free Running, or Parkour as it was originally known. Parkour is the French sport - for some, a way of life - in which participants push their bodies to the limit as they attempt to get from A to B by going over, under or around any obstacles in as quick and fluid a manner as possible. There are elements of both athletics and martial arts inherent in Parkour, and the sight of experienced practitioners of the art leaping across tall buildings, up walls and through narrow gaps is a joy to behold.

Most British viewers will be familiar with Parkour through the Channel 4 documentary Jump London, which featured a small group of Free Runners defying gravity and logic as they gracefully jumped across such London landmarks as The Tate Modern, The Globe Theatre and HMS Belfast. For District B13, however, two Parkour experts are back on home territory.

The place is Paris, and the year is 2010. Social order seems to have broken down completely in this dystopian view of France’s future, and certain ghettos have been cut off from civilised society by huge walls. One of these subsections of the city is the notorious District B13, a lawless hell hole which is filled with every possible kind of criminal, thug and drug dealer. Even the cops have had enough and, in an echo of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (surely an influence), they’re packing up to let District B13’s inhabitants fend for themselves. Only one man seems interested in restoring law and order to the neighbourhood he grew up in; local ex-con Leïto (David Belle).

Belle was one of the original creators of Parkour, and within the film’s opening moments we see his extraordinary skills in full flow. Leïto is first seen destroying a consignment of cocaine which he stole from District B13’s Kingpin Taha (Bibi Naceri), and when Taha’s thugs come calling, he makes his escape in thrilling style. Belle hops, skips and jumps his way past the gun-toting characters on his tail. He bounces off walls, landing punches and kicks to his bewildered opponents; he flies through a window, hundreds of feet above the ground, and grabs a hanging rope to swing his way into another window. When Leïto finds himself in a tight spot - trapped in a small room with Taha’s men on the other side of the door - he astonishes us all by jumping through the transom window above the door! Buster Keaton pulled a similar stunt in his 1921 short The Goat, but Belle performs his incredible stunt feet first. In fact the comparison with Keaton is apposite. Both men are small, wiry characters with an extraordinary spring in their step; they’re strong as an ox, and yet seemingly made of elastic.

The opening to District B13 is a fabulous piece of action filmmaking, with first-time director Pierre Morel draining full mileage out of Belle’s ability to fly around the narrow stairwells and treacherous rooftops of his building. After a while, however, we have to stop all this high-kicking fun to allow something resembling a plot to unfold. To be honest, District B13 doesn’t have much in the way of story: a truck carrying some sort of devastating bomb has been hijacked and the bomb has found its way into the hands of Taha. Unorthodox Parisian cop Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) is given the task of smuggling his way into District B13, hooking up with Leïto along the way, and defusing the missile within 24 hours. Despite his initial mistrust, Leïto is willing to act as Damien’s guide to the district, but he has his own agenda, as Taha is holding his sister captive.

Have you all got that? Right then, let’s get back to the fun part. Once Damien and Leïto have joined forces District B13 slips into action mode and doesn’t look back. With such a flimsy foundation being provided by its second-rate Escape From New York-style script, it’s down to Belle and Raffaelli to keep us riveted, and they handle this task in fine fashion. The fights come thick and fast, and the film finds ever more ingenious ways to drop our heroes into peril. The great thing about watching this stuff is the fact that so much of it feels real. 90% of the film’s action sequences were created with no recourse to special effects or wire work, and the extra little thrill of knowing that Belle and Raffaelli’s athletic skills are all their own certainly adds to the film’s appeal. The pair are inexperienced as actors, but they deliver their lines in a suitably macho monotone. Raffaelli, a former stuntman, is passable as the upstanding Damien; but it’s David Belle who really shines as his partner. The brooding Belle displays a wider range of fighting and acrobatic skills, and he also exudes much more charisma than his occasionally wooden co-star. Perhaps a new action star is born?
District B13 has been scripted by Besson and Bibi Naceri (who stars as Taha), and it’s as light as you’d expect in the characterisation and plot department. The dialogue is generally awful, it’s a little too sadistic in parts, and I really disliked the whiff of misogyny which surrounds the film’s treatment of Leïto’s pretty sister Lola (Dany Verissimo). In fact the film is riddled with holes and would probably fall apart under any sort of scrutiny, but Morel keeps things moving at a rollicking pace - from the ultra-kinetic credits sequence onwards - and barely gives you enough time to let such flaws get in the way of the overall enjoyment. As a former director of photography, Morel ensures the film looks great, and it has that slick, polished sheen which Besson always brings to the party.

There’s one final thing which surprised me about District B13. This is a dumb, loud and shallow action film; but recent events in France, when racial and political tensions spilled over into widespread rioting, have almost given it a sense of relevance. Could this ludicrous and wildly entertaining film also be seen as a social commentary? Given Besson’s heavy-handed scripting, perhaps not. He gives Raffaelli a clumsy speech towards the end of District B13 which tells us that “violence doesn’t solve anything”. Noble sentiments Mr Besson, but those words may have carried a little more weight if the man delivering them hadn’t just spent 85 minutes kicking lumps out of anyone who got in his way.....