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Banlieue 13 (District B13)

(2006) ** 1/2 R
85 min. Magnolia Pictures. Director: Pierre Morel. Cast: David Belle, Cyril Raffaelli, Tony D'Amario, Dany Verissimo, Francois Chattot.

Surprisingly, a top contender for best action film of the summer isn't from America, but France. Pardon our French, but it's a "dick flick," a movie for men that pays special attention to violent action, profanity, and muscular athleticism. The sole female character may be tough, but the bad guys enthusiastically victimize her, putting her on a leash and transforming her into heroin-addled bait.

The movie is District B13, another consistently juvenile quickie scripted but not directed by Luc Besson (The Professional). The story unfolds in a dystopian future where walled-off ghettos allow criminals freely to abuse innocents. One man, named Leito (David Belle), won't stand for it, but druglord Taha (played by co-screenwriter Bibi Naceri) becomes too much for one man to handle when he acquires a neutron bomb.

Enter a by-the-book cop (Cyril Raffaelli)—who Leito regards with considerable suspicion—and you've got a buddy action flick about bridging the gulf between cynical citizens and public servants. Wild card: the crimnal element, one of whom pegs the untamed project as a war zone destined to be written off. "You took a wrong turn," he tells the cop. "This ain't Monaco—it's Baghdad."

Director Pierre Morel's secret weapon is the style of action. In France, it's known as Parkour, a sport of clambering, leaping, and tumbling through urban environments (Belle takes partial credit for inventing the sport). Jackie Chan has been doing this since Belle was in diapers, but never mind—Belle's a skilled practioner, well-paired with former stuntman Cyril Raffaelli as the cop.

Morel directs with stylish efficiency, beginning with a tour-de-force tour of the titular high-risk housing project. Crack editing by Stéphanie Gaurier and Frédéric Thoraval contributes to the propulsive action scenes: Belle vaults and swings over, on, or through transoms, railings, and drainpipes, and Raffaelli takes apart a gang of toughs in a carefully calibrated poolhall brawl.

Yes, it's the kind of stupid movie that unaccountably turns into a DePalma-Pacino spoof at the drop of a panama hat (Raffaelli busts a baddie in Pacino-esque drag: stringy hair, beard, white overcoat, gravelly voice, and mambo soundtrack). Characters say things like "But this is mission impossible" or this appraisal of two million potential victims: "Half are scum, but the other half needs us."

But the cheese is half the fun of a B+ action movie (with music by Da.Octopuss). While women may certainly apply, it's primarily the guys who will find District B13 irresistible.

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