Traditionally a bunch of kicking and brick smashing doesn’t get a film much credit with the critics. There’s the occasional blip on the map like Die Hard or Dirty Harry. And sometimes an action film star’s canon will become the thing of legend. Bruce Lee anyone?
Generally speaking, action movies are the equivalent of a Twinkie: they taste pretty good even when they’re stale and dry. And when they’re gone (or the movie’s over) you go on living your life like the experience never happened. If this is a fair comparison (and I believe it is) then Pierre Morel’s District B13 is one healthy sponge cake.
Set in the year 2010, District B13 represents a vision of a near future that could be pretty damn ugly. Parts of Paris have been overtaken by gangs. Fenced in from the world outside, B13 is the most notorious of the ghettos. The police are closing up shop, kids are selling drugs, graffiti tags are meant to be taken seriously and one look in the wrong direction can result in a kick or 12 to the head.
Leïto (David Bell) is one of the few good guys left. He’s a real-life super hero of sorts who flushes heroin down the drain and looks out for his little sister Lola (Dany Verissimo). However all that good goes to waste after he breaks the neck of a no-good police captain. Sent to rot in jail (which is probably more comfortable than the ghetto), Leïto manages to get sprung. Turns out it was a set up by the cops as Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) was sent on a mission to recover a nuke inside B13 and he needed Leïto’s kicking abilities to make it happen.
Leïto follows along like a good little lap dog, even though he was onto Damien within seconds. It turns out Leïto has a little motivation of his own as Lola has been kidnapped and in need of her big brother.
With a short running time of 85 minutes, 75 minutes are allotted to intense action scenes, eight for the opening and closing credits and two for story. But, man, those two minutes are some good stuff.
Before seeing the credits, I had a hunch Luc Besson (The Professional) was involved. And no, not just because it was a French actioner that actually saw release in North America. Despite all the stunts, guns and over-the-top characters, there’s something very cynical about District 13. It’s a film that is also very aware of its genre code. Put it all together and I wasn’t the least bit surprised to see Besson show up as one of the film’s writers.
The happenings in B13 might seem a little far-fetched, but take a peek at the ghettos around the world, including those in North America. They’re rough places. Worse still is that many important people try to ignore the problems poverty bring. Abraham Maslow listed survival as number one on his ranked list of human needs. If you don’t put someone in a position to live, they’ll find a way. Even if it means peddling powder.
District B13 is very much an action film, even if there are politics in play. Like anything starring Van Damme or Stallone, there’s lots of adrenaline-inducing sequences. Most have a fresh feeling as they involve quick movements rather than brute force. The ways that Bell and Raffaelli (and the countless nameless thugs) throw their bodies around are incredible. And it’s not like quick edits are being employed to create effects. They actually are jumping from balconies, sliding up and down the sides of buildings and jumping in moving cars with more flare than all seven seasons of The Dukes of Hazzard combined. Knowing that it’s a part of a genre, District B13 has moments where it is quite self-reflexive in that it plays with the codes of the genre and flips it on its head.
Granted, the film isn’t always below the surface and the action flattens out around an hour in, but there’s still something refreshing about an action film that actually gives a damn about more than explosions.