(originally BANLIEUE 13)
I’m way behind on this movie. I remember a couple years ago I went to see some movie at the film festival here, and this one was just getting out on the same screen. I saw some people I knew coming out and I asked them how it was. They said it was ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK except in France, and with some weird martial art where they run up walls and shit. I knew it was a Luc Besson joint so I thought wait a minute, is this related to that YAMAKASI movie I saw? The art of climbing and flipping?
Now it’s years later and the movie has long since played American theaters and DVD players in a dubbed version called DISTRICT B13. The advertising campaign has tried to convince us we know what the word “parkour” means. Another practicioner of the art has battled (and lost) the new, badass James Bond. Now it’s old news, the excitement has worn off, so I saw it now. That’s just how I roll.
Well, it really is an ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK ripoff – the poor neighborhood District B13 has been walled off just like New York was, and our hero is a badass released from prison to go into B13 and do a mission for the man. Only instead of saving the president he has to find a nuclear bomb that’s in the hands of his enemy, and instead of Ernest Borgnine he’s teamed up with a cop, and instead of having an eyepatch he doesn’t have an eyepatch.
But despite the similarity, the whole look, tone, spirit and poetry of the movie is nothing like ESCAPE. What it’s more like is exactly what it is: an action movie produced and written by Luc Besson. Fun and energetic if not entirely memorable. I liked it though.
The hero is Leïto, played by David Belle, who is apparently the founder of parkour. That is pretty good bragging rights right there because you can’t say who the founder of basketball is, or the founder of karate, but this guy is the founder of parkour, the art of climbing over shit. To be honest I am not completely schooled in the different forms of climbing over shit. This guy founded parkour. Sebastien Foucan, the guy who Bond chases in CASINO ROYALE, also helped with the parkour but is considered the founder of free running. The guys in the movie YAMAKASI are also a different thing, their art involves unnecessary flips and other show offy maneuvers, whereas the parkour and the free running is about trying to get from point A to point B in the fewest possible movies. And then the other version of this is in the movie CREMASTER: THE ORDER where Matthew Barney climbs around in a museum with a napkin in his mouth. That is about getting from point A to point B in the most pretentious and annoying way possible. The Barney form is separate from parkour, free running and yamakasi on account of just being stupid.
Anyway, David Belle doesn’t have an eyepatch but he does have some tattoos, doesn’t like to wear shirts and looks kind of like a tougher Adrien Brody. He has a likable presence, it’s suprising that he’s not a real actor. If you made a movie about mountain climbing and had it star the number one mountain climber, I doubt the guy would be this good on screen. Also, watching a guy climbing a mountain wouldn’t be as cool as the scene in this movie where he effortlessly leaps feet first through a tiny window in the top of a door and makes it through, for real.
Leïto is more of a good guy than Snake Plissken, because he’s trying to keep the drugs out of his neighborhood. But the cops screw him over and the bad guy takes his little sister and keeps her drugged up like they did to the girl in THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE. So when he has an offer to “escape” prison with a guy he knows is actually a cop trying to trick him, he does it. And various climbing and fights ensue.
The cop is Damien, played by Cyril Rafaelli, another guy who’s not really an actor, he’s a stunt co-ordinator. So they have some pretty good fights and stunts. Damien is introduced in a pretty spectacular sequence where he’s undercover and has to fight his way out of a mafia casino vault. In this scene they also use a pretty good law enforcement technique where they drop a huge weight through the top of the building, then drop a cable through the hole they created to hook their prisoner like a fish.
Damien isa good character, but Leïto is clearly the cooler of the two, and I will tell you why. Early on there’s a scene where the local crime boss Taha is trying to get some drugs back from Leïto, so he has his thugs kidnap Leïto’s little sister as leverage. Once the job is done Taha is telling his boys to spread the word so Leïto will find out they have his sister. And as he’s saying that he can’t wait to see the look on Leïto’s face when he finds out, Leïto himself crashes through a high window in the office and puts this sonofabitch in a chokehold. Waaaaay ahead of you there, Taha.
That is a classic badass move, the three steps ahead badass move, the sort of thing Blade is good at. Combining a cool stunt with evidence that the hero is intelligent. Way to go.
And I really like the supporting cast in this one. Taha is played by Bib Naceri, who actually co-wrote the movie with Besson. He is a real wiry, obnoxious bastard. His #2 is K2, a big guy who kind of looks like Chopper but wears gold chains and has a giant K2 shaved on the back of his head Brian Bosworth style. Both of these characters are really funny and still threatening to the heroes.
The action is real good, there is a scene where two guys jump over a moving car at the same time. There is lots of running up walls and buildings, jumping across roof tops, climbing up tall structures. There are some good fights. To be honest I think it could use more fighting and climbing, but I can’t complain too much. The story and characters are surprisingly strong even in the middle portion where it sort of gets heavier into those things than you might want in a goofy Luc Besson action movie.
One thing that gives the story a little extra punch is the universal truth of the class issues it deals with. I checked and sure enough this movie was made in 2004, the year before the series of riots in the French suburbs which the dystopian world of the movie is seemingly inspired by. In the movie, Leïto feels that nobody gives a shit about him and his people because of the neighborhood they come from. The rich bourgeoisie motherfuckers, who by the way do not have very much discreet charm in this one, live outside of the walls and actually want to bomb the poor people to stop crime. Leïto trusts the law at the beginning and tries to bring his enemies to the police, but he quickly learns that they are not to be trusted. (This also leads to an awesome head smash.)
It’s weird to compare this to modern day America. In France many of the poor and the immigrants live in the suburbs (translated as “barrio” in the subtitles here). That’s where the movie takes place and where the riots happened. But the rich people live in Paris proper, in the city. I guess you could compare the banlieue to what we call the ghetto, but here the suburbs are where the rich and the middle class people live, not in the city. Alot of the poor people tend to live in the city, which is how “inner city” and “urban” became code words for “black.” The people with money live out in the suburbs and commute into the city to work at their office buildings and what not. A nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.
But I wouldn’t be surprised if things change to the DISTRICT B13 model here in a decade or two. Right now in Seattle, and I know in many other cities, they are basically trying to force us all out by knocking down any building they can find and turning it into condos with office space beneath it. I can only afford to live in apartments, but every time your lease comes up they raise the rent, and more and more these buildings are either being converted or completely destroyed and turned into condos. And people like me can’t afford that shit. So you got the same poor people fighting for fewer and fewer apartments, eventually some of us are gonna have to leave and go out to the banlieue and live somewhere between the Office Depot and the Chipotle, where we will work at a gas station next to a strip mall until our souls are a dried out husk and there’s a Subway on every corner. And if you try to climb on it you will be tried and convicted and smothered with Jared’s giant pants.
UPDATE: My bud “Mystic Chasm” informed me that there is a founder of basketball, this guy. Check out the picture, he should’ve starred in an action movie too.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.