Man, say what you will about Luc Besson, he’s still got his exploitation producer thing going, and he’s squeezed more cinema out of Parkour than Cannon ever got out of breakdancing. Back in the late ’90s the LEON director saw dudes bouncing off the streets, walls and rooftops of France, and while other people might’ve thought “I hope that guy doesn’t fall [in French],” his reaction was “I gotta put this shit in an action movie!” So by ’98 Besson, as writer and producer, had Parkour in a foot chase through traffic in TAXI 2, and by ’01 he’d done a whole movie called YAMAKASI starring some of the pioneers of the artform.
Even then he knew he could do more with it so in ’04 he co-wrote and produced BANLIEUE 13, or DISTRICT B13 as we call it here. It was kind of an ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK riff but in a near future extrapolation of the Parisian suburbs, and done as a buddy movie. A supercop has to team with a criminal from the walled-off District 13.
For director, Besson used TRANSPORTER cinematographer Pierre Morel, who later did TAKEN and FROM PARIS WITH LOVE for him. There was also a not as good sequel in 2009, directed by the guy who did the making-of TV special for Besson’s THE BIG BLUE.
A good decade-and-a-half on it might’ve seemed like the whole Parkour/B13 thing free-ran its course, but fuck it… how ’bout do an American remake now? To me there’s something kinda charming and old school about that. Besson’s instincts are openly mercenary but also tend to create the kind of entertainment I wish there was more of in this world.
Actually, it’s a Franco-Canadian production, but taking place in Detroit and with the all-American RZA as villain and end-credits-song-provider. The late Paul Walker plays the cop, Damien, so he’s up for lots of fast and furious fighting and stunts, but not as many as the French version’s Cyril Raffaelli (a.k.a. “the hamster” from LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD), who was Besson’s long time stunt coordinator. David Belle, the actual founder of Parkour, plays Lino, the new version of the Leïto character that was originally played by Ten Years Younger David Belle. Big shoes to fill, but Older Belle does well, still going shirtless so much he must’ve thought he was playing Tarzan.
Lino is some kind of housing project vigilante who when we meet him has just stolen 20 kilos of dope from a dealer named K2 (Gouchy Boy, MAXIMUM CONVICTION) and is dumping them down the bath tub drain. So the gang and their friends the corrupt cops are after him, and he ends up in jail. Then Damien comes in, helps bust him out and convinces him to help find a stolen bomb that could blow up the whole district. Lino immediately makes him as an undercover cop but works with him anyway because the gang has his sister Lola. Oh wait, that was the original. In this one Lola is his ex-girlfriend and is played by TAXI 4’s Catalina Denis.
The director, Camille Delamarre, is yet another Besson acolyte, having edited TRANSPORTER 3, COLOMBIANA, LOCKOUT and TAKEN 2 for him, as well as second unit directing episodes of Transporter: The Series. Filmatistically it’s fine, does not stand out or look as good as some of Besson’s own pictures.
I could be remembering wrong, but it seems like alot of the story points are less clear in this one. They kind of rush through the explanation of the walled off district in a quick news report, and I don’ think they do as much to make Lino seem like a Plissken-esque action hero. It’s almost like they figure you’ve already seen the first one, you get what’s going on and they’re not gonna waste your time.
Here’s something I liked: Damien has been told Lino is locked up for being a “cop killer.” The truth of the matter is that he brought in a bunch of gangsters to a cop who turned out to be on their payroll and locked up Lino instead, so in retaliation Lino killed that guy from inside the cell. I like that although he tells Damien the cop he killed was dirty he doesn’t bother to go into the whole story. He doesn’t care that much what people think.
Belle is still great to watch. He does fight (he’s studied kung fu), but he’s not just another martial artist. His talent is mostly for transporting himself – running, swinging on fire escapes and other metal bars, jumping off roofs, through windows, over people, cars, furniture, walls. His introduction is one of the best scenes, a foot chase through a housing project with a high volume of little moves and gimmicks. It’s much more exhilarating than your average modern American action scene, but notably more chopped up and jittery than similar scenes in the first one.
In fact, it’s a straight up remake of the first chase. I give them credit for improving some of the gags here and there, like the way he kicks the door on top of them at the beginning and what happens when they run through the old couple’s apartment. But I watch BRICK MANSIONS and then I come home and watch the original chase scene on Youtube:
and I really notice how much less the new one shows what’s going on, how much more effective it is to show a bunch of moves in one continuous shot instead of cutting away after (or even during) each jump like they tend to do now. The old way gives you more of a sense of danger, a feeling that this guy could fall and break his neck at any moment, and is somehow pulling it off for real. Whether the more edited new one means Belle can’t push himself as hard at 40 as at 30 or that directors are just fuckin stupid now, I can’t say for sure. I bet it’s some of both.
Belle’s scenes are generally more clear than Walker’s, whose are more clear than Catalina Denis’s handful of fight scenes. I think it’s most fun when Belle and Walker are working together (or fighting each other). I like the conceit that these two guys who have just met for some reason have similar incredible skills and seemingly a telepathic link to work together in tandem with no previous discussion. My favorite is the beautiful trailer shot where two cars are trying to run them over and collide head first as they do matching slow motion flips to get out of the way. And that’s not the only time they do synchronized jumps.
It makes exactly the correct amount of sense for a movie like this: none.
This Gouchy Boy guy is pretty good as K2, but not as funny as original K2, a white dude with his named shaved in his head, officially the most memorable villain in the French version since I don’t remember the main guy at all (despite saying positive things about him in my review at the time). Original K2 Tony D’Amario died a year after the movie, so it makes sense to go in another direction. Otherwise I’d like to think they would’ve cast him again like they did with Belle.
In BRICK MANSIONS the villain you remember is RZA as Tremaine, not that different from his fun bad guy in THE PROTECTOR 2 except that here he’s supposed to have some thread of honor in him somewhere. He’s a ruthless arms dealer who shoots his own men to make a point, but somehow the movie treats him like an okay guy at the end, giving him the Dom Torretto treatment even though he’s a murderer. He also has an Evil Juxtaposition: he likes to cook while speechifying to his henchmen. He wears fancy vests and ties at all times and gets to wax philosophical a bunch (though not narrate). I know the novelty’s gonna wear off eventually, but I still love seeing him play ninjas and warriors and kingpins who talk just like he does on his records. I’m not sure whether or not it’s intentional that he uses the word “constituaries” instead of “constituents.” That seems like a RZAism.
(By the way, several people in the theater laughed when he made an EXPENDABLES-type reference to the Wu-Tang song “C.R.E.A.M.”)
The class issues, a timely portrait of Paris in 2004, now just seem like a timeless easy target. But I can dig that. If I’m not mistaken they took one of the ideas from the sequel for this one (the powers that be wanting to blow up the district to build condos), and I always dig that kind of plot point. I wish the mayor seemed more American-sleazy though – they got an actor from Montreal.
I think this was Walker’s last completed movie, or if not then one of his last, and I wish I could say it took his acting to new levels, but that wouldn’t really be true. He’s doing a solid version of his grim-faced action guy, with less of a sense of humor than he’s allowed to show in the FAST AND FURIOUS movies. He has some chemistry with his mismatched partners here, but nothing like what he had with Vin Diesel. For him I’m sure it was an excuse to hang out with a Parkour legend and have more fun doing car, fight and jumping-off-roof stunts, a worthwhile side project never meant to be the final word on anything.
I kinda enjoyed this movie. It’s alot of energy and good action gimmicks tied to a fun, if familiar story. It’s some actors I like. And there’s something appealing about international productions like this: a weird combination of pandering to lowbrow American needs and kinda ignoring what an American movie is supposed to be like. I mean, there’s no mistaking that this was made by Europeans.
But even having not seen B13 in years it was obvious to me that this was not different enough from the original while not being as good. I didn’t really mind when scenes seemed very familiar but didn’t seem to one-up anything, but when they introduced the drug dealer’s underground compound and I remembered the elaborate casino escape sequence that they just replace with a pretty standard shootout here, it’s more of a problem.
So, I cannot say this is striving for excellence, but I do recommend it as an enjoyable meat and potatoes movie if you need something to hold you over until something truly great. Or as a reminder to check out the original again.