The Theory of Chaos

Friday, June 02, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - District B13

Full review behind the jump

Banlieue 13 (aka District B13)
: Pierre Morel
Writers: Luc Besson and Bibi Naceri
: Luc Besson
: Cyril Raffaelli, David Belle, Tony D’Amario, Bibi Naceri, Dany Verissimo, François Chattot

Those who reach the end credits of District B13, the French action thriller released overseas in November of 2004 and just now reaching our shores, will be treated to what will be, for many, a novelty: gangsta rap in French. One of the distinctions of this feisty stunt-laden B-movie is that it demonstrates just how far around the world bling culture has traveled. Of course, when you’re talking about movies sprung from the fevered imagination of Luc Besson (The Professional, The Fifth Element), you can’t always be too sure just how much of the world he’s splashing on screen is really tethered to reality. You can be sure you’re about to see something which is at least energetic and appealingly different.

The dressings of the movie are a speculative near-future where France has permanently walled off its most dangerous ghettos and abandoned the residents within to fend for themselves. When the action-packed prologue spills into the last police station in the area, we see the cops packing boxes and getting ready to leave. But you don’t come here for the keen examination of a society so frightened by its underbelly that it would cut it off rather than face it (and perhaps do more), it’s wallpaper for a muscular blend of martial arts techniques, and an attempt to wrench the action genre away from the wire-fu rut it’s been settling into for the last few years. The results are satisfying from that standpoint, if flat emotionally and even goofy in some of its gestures.

The most distinctive addition to the thrill menu is the use of parkour – a sort of freestyle urban acrobatics that uses improvisation and what must be titanium ankles and knees to traverse building walls, rooftops and other normally-inhospitable man-made edifices. One of the original developers of this underground sport, David Belle, co-stars as Leïto, a young man trying to use his wit and courage to carve out one clean corner of his ghetto. When the minions of drug kingpin Taha (Bibi Naceri) fail to capture him after he steals and destroys their product, they explain to their boss in chastened dismay: “He’s a bar of soap”.

Or perhaps some combination of stray cat and ping pong ball – it’s bracing to watch Belle, without wires or computer gimmickery, go careening off banisters and down poles, through tiny windows, leaping from building to building without ever seeming to lose speed. Video gamers who’ve played the new generation of Prince of Persia titles should see something familiar in the mixture of power, grace and dizzying falls. It’s more compelling for Belle to be doing that than acting – he knows only lifeless and histrionic and no feelings in between. Whatever his dynamic real-life skills, he lacks essential screen charisma.

Faring better is star/choreographer Cyril Raffaelli, who plays the idealistic and very flexible undercover detective Damien. He brings a little more grace to the action compared to Belle’s slick efficiency, and he’s able to carry us with only a little awkwardness through some rudimentary emotional moments. After a successful bust his superiors summon him and spin a rather fantastic tale – that an experimental neutron bomb capable of vaporizing several city blocks’ worth of human life has been hijacked by Taha’s men. And when they opened it, it triggered a 24-hour timer. Preposterous and foolish as that sounds, it leaves the cops very little time to infiltrate B13 and defuse it. Damien is assigned to bust Leïto out of prison, gain his trust, and use his knowledge to get to Taha and the bomb.

Leïto’s got a reason of his own to break back in: Taha took his little sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) prisoner and made her his slave by getting her hooked on heroin. Actually, she never shows any of the signs of addiction, so perhaps he just got her hooked on heroin chic, making her tragically partial to torn black tights and heavy eye shadow.

It’s enough motivation to propel our leaping and flipping heroes through 85 minutes or so. The fights are snappy and come with a fair share of concussive moments. The editing is on the daft side, often cutting quickly to wildly disparate angles in the middle of a single stunt and making it more difficult to appreciate the geography involved. Pierre Morel is making his directing debut here after serving as director of photography on several other of Besson’s house productions – he doesn’t hurt the project but he doesn’t do much to help it, either. Besson’s penchant for colorful, almost florid, villains is on display – one gripes about how hard it is to get good goons these days, and muses that they should start recruiting college graduates, since many of them don’t know what to do with themselves.

Some of the more eccentric flourishes are worth laughs, as are some questionable grammar choices in the subtitles. The whole project has a kind of eager roughness around the edges, which ends up being more appealing than not. Despite the layer of social commentary in it you’d never convict it of being too self-serious. In trying to show a distinct and different blend of fighting, District B13 makes a worthwhile run. Don’t expect inspiration or catharsis, but part of me does feel obligated to encourage some people to buy a ticket. You’ll see some impressive feats of athleticism, and you’ll help the stars be able to afford the new hips they’ll be needing later in life.


  • But what IS the ending theme song? As for movie goers your reaction to it's ending french rap is probably how you'll feel about the movie... my opinion? Absurd and fun.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:24 AM  

  • The song would be "Résistant", performed by Iron Sy. And you're right, it does serve as an effective litmus test.

    By Blogger Nick, at 11:34 AM  

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