District B13 (2004) / Action-Thriller
aka Banlieue 13
aka District 13
aka 13th District
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, drug content, sexuality, and language
Running Time: 82 min.
Cast: Cyril Raffaeli, David Belle, Bibi (Larbi) Naceri, Tony D'Amario, Dany Verissimo, Francois Chattot
Director: Pierre Morel
Screenplay: Luc Besson, Bibi Naceri
Review published June 8, 2004
With a premise not dissimilar to that of Escape from New York (with a heavy nod to John Carpenter's other crime thriller, Assault on Precinct 13), a thriller style not far from that of The Rock, and action more exhilarating than most of the Matrix clones (somewhat akin to Ong-Bak), District B13 may be total nonsense when you hear about it offhand, but once you start watching, it's hard to take your eyes off the screen.
The year is 2010 in Paris, where the people and politicians have decided to do something about the rampant crime in the city once and for all, walling up the worst of the areas of the city, a district known simply as B13, letting the criminal inhabitants do whatever it is that criminals do within the vicinity with near lawlessness. Even in an area rampant with vice, there is a bit of virtue, in the form of Leito (Belle), a man that has dedicated himself to releasing the stranglehold that vicious kingpin Taha (Naceri) and his army of thugs has on the district. Taha gets revenge, having Leito imprisoned by the ineffectual police, while kidnapping his sister Lola and keeping her drugged up for his own protection.
Months pass, and an earnest and highly skilled cop named Damien (Raffaelli) enters the scene, having been commissioned to put an end to the nefarious plot hatched by Taha to extort money for a nuclear bomb that will explode in 24 hours. Damien's mission is to spring Leito out of his cell, and together, infiltrate Taha's stronghold and diffuse the bomb before the city becomes a literal wasteland.
District B13 is completely carried by the action scenes, which are some of the most impressively mounted I've seen made in a film outside of Hong Kong. This is a slickly packaged and efficiently presented thrill-a-minute ride, definitely of interest to anyone that considers himself an action movie junkie. The most notable aspect comes from the original use of a French-originated style called "parkour" (aka free running), the forward progress of human movement is hardly inhibited by obstacles, which are easily jumped over, crawled under, or jumped between through the athleticism of the participant. Amazingly, most of these high-flying stunt pieces are made without the predominant use of CGI tampering or wires. Co-star David Belle is considered the originator of the very effective technique.
The plot itself is a dog, but you probably won't mind that they put so little effort into making the story compelling as director Pierre Morel keeps the adrenaline pumping with scene after scene of action so stylized and masterful that you hardly have time to catch your breath. Produced and co-written by French action auteur Luc Besson (The Transporter, Kiss of the Dragon), who seems to be on a roll of late making hyperkinetic thrillers, nearly every frame has the look and feel of a video game, with impossible physics, hard-driving techno, and different, progressively dangerous arenas for the main players to battle.
Although neither started in the film business as an actor, the two main players, Belle and Raffaelli, exude a good deal of on-screen chemistry, especially together. Raffaelli has been a stuntman and stunt coordinator for years, but outside of a few token scenes here and there in action films the last few years, he really hasn't had a chance in the spotlight. If their work in films of the future can match some of the impressively shot and mounted sequences they've developed in District B13, these two may have the chance of being international action stars in their own right, and not just bit players.
District B13 won't win any awards for its ambitious but inherently stupid screenplay, which does manage to almost make one feel guilty for being completely engaged in it. Just a smidgeon of intelligence to it and we might actually be privy to a classic modern actioner, instead of just a highly entertaining, but nearly nonsensical, popcorn movie. Most of its delights come from the visual components, from the editing, to the cinematography, and, of course, the fantastic choreography and execution of the fight and chase sequences. It may sound like just another completely no-brain action vehicle, and to some extent it is, but it's construction is lean, mean, and aggressive enough to provide the perfect showcase for the talents of its burgeoning stars, in front of the camera, and behind it as well.
©2006 Vince Leo