David Belle, Cyril Raffaelli, Larbi Naceri, Tony D'Amario
Luc Besson, Larbi Naceri
|The year is 2010. The setting is Paris, France. The French government has cordoned off the city's ghetto areas into districts, complete with police checkpoints, barb-wire fences, and immense walls to keep the "undesirables" inside the ghetto areas and to protect the more affluent French.
The worst of these ghetto areas is "B13," an area marked by such extreme violence that the schools have been closed and even the police station is preparing to close. The drug lord Taha (Larbi Naceri) is in power here, backed by his enforcer, appropriately named K2 (Tony D'Amario).
"District B13" is produced by Luc Besson, who has almost single-handedly brought life to the action genre in France. In this film, which he co-wrote with the aforementioned Naceri, Besson turns over the directing chair to Pierre Morel, his long-time cinematographer. This is Morel's first feature film, but he's clearly learned well the fine art of action film-making by working beside Besson.
To attempt to explain the plot of "District B13" would be pointless. Plot is irrelevant here. "District B13" is almost solely devoted to action, and the action in "District B13" is mesmerizing, largely due to Morel's wise casting of two professional stuntmen.
David Belle, as the vigilante Leito, is charismatic, convincing and, at times, downright funny as a man who was born inside B13 but who has managed to eke out a fairly peaceful existence until the day he attempts to double-cross Taha. This results in the kidnapping of his sister, Lola (Dany Verissimo).
Outside B13, idealistic French cop Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) still believes in democracy, justice and hope for everyone equally.
When a "clean bomb" falls into Taha's hands inside B13, it becomes up to Cyril and Damien to break back into Taha's lair, find the bomb, diffuse the bomb and save Paris.
All in a day's work, eh?
The joy of "District B13" lies in the remarkable casting of Belle and Raffaelli. Both actors do all their stunts, usually without the benefit of nets, cables and/or CGI gimmickry. The end result is "old school" action with lots of physical action, chase scenes, judo and Parkour, a French sport that Belle co-developed that can best be described as "free running", a sport that involves jumping between objects, buildings, cars, objects and in a wide variety of settings. Belle is considered the master of the sport, and his mastery is evident throughout the film.
The chase scenes, shot beautifully using a high-speed camera shooting at 150 frames per second instead of the usual 24, are fantastically choreographed and flawlessly carried out. Belle and Raffaelli have a tremendous "buddy" chemistry, and a strong physical presence that serves to enhance the action.
Naceri and Besson's script is relatively inconsequential, and the dialogue early on is quite laughable. Yet, once Cyril and Damien are paired together everything seems to gel perfectly. Fans of Besson's "The Professional," however, may be bothered by the rather elementary approach that "District B13" takes to spelling out what this all is supposed to mean. It's as if Morel didn't quite trust that everyone would actually "get it," so in the last few minutes of the film we get several very direct, concise statements that serve to spell out "This is what my film actually means."
Morel's film essentially borrows from other action films and stars, including Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Van Damme and others. Yet, Morel's film is moderately above the pack due to the film's stellar cinematography, and all-around winning performances.
As Taha, Naceri is appropriately creepy without ever becoming a caricature of himself. His performance reminds me of Ben Kingsley's recent performance in this year's "Lucky Number Slevin," a performance that combined total viciousness with a sort of "business as usual" attitude. On the flip side, Tony D'Amario adds a touch of dark humor to his otherwise intense, vengeful enforcer. Sadly, D'Amario died shortly after completing this film after a long career of somewhat similar roles.
Only the character of Lola is severely underdeveloped, Besson seemingly content to have Verissimo portray her as a stereotypically victimized woman (until the film's closing scenes).
At 85 minutes, "District B13" moves along swiftly and because the action is center-stage it's relatively easy to forget about the film's subtitles. Brief moments of plot exposition are followed quickly by prolonged scenes of chasing, violence, planning and, the occasional stress relieving chuckle. Morel handles all these aspects marvelously, and the script's pacing is about the best seen in recent years for this type of film.
To be sure, "District B13" is heavily flawed with its fundamental script, predictable plot, lack of a storyline and early challenges with dialogue. The film, however, succeeds where so many action films fail...in the action. By returning to "true" action instead of CGI gimmicks or fake stunts, Morel has crafted a film that is electrifying to watch because the audience is aware that these actors are really, truly performing these actions. These actions, in turn, are simply awesome and, at times, rather unbelievable in nature.
A strong chemistry between the lead actors, excellent cinematography, a solid score with an excellent soundtrack, pitch-perfect pacing and fantastic fight choreography combine to elevate "District B13" into one of this year's most exciting and entertaining action films.
Fans of Luc Besson and fans of the action genre would do well to put "District B13" on their must-see list.
|© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic