Think of “Escape from New York” starring two French Spidermen on speed, and you’ve got “District B13,” a snazzy, sensational action ride from big-bang guru Luc Besson.
We’re launched forward in time. It’s Paris, 2010. The French government has implemented a radical form of social segregation, in which undesirables are confined to massive, walled-off ghettos. A bravura tracking shot opens the film, twisting and turning us like a Space Mountain passenger pod. We’re guided through the broken community of gangs, dopers, and other fine folk packed inside. District B13 is the toughest, most notorious neighborhood existing in this felonious human sardine can. It also houses the most feared, volatile gang. Ruling this hive of vile vermin is unforgiving Taha (Bibi Naceri), who keeps overhead costs down by immediately killing anyone who makes even the most trivial of mistakes.
Taha acquires an atomic missile. Panicked law enforcement officials send celebrated cop Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) over the wall, and into District B13. His mission: defuse the bomb. That’s the film’s basic, bare-bones plot.
Like any good rollercoaster, however, “District B13” hurls us around surprise corners and down unexpected slopes. Morel dangles a second story thread in our faces involving Leito (David Belle), a District B13 resident whose punky sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) has gone missing. Upon discovering Taha’s abduction of his sibling, Leito embarks on an extreme rescue mission. With both Damien and Leito in search of the same target, the two men are thrown together as a wary, distrustful duo. Broken bones, snapped necks, and nirvana-reaching action fans are sure to result from this lethal crime-fighting union.
High on style and in love with movement, “District B13” sees French cinematographer-come-director Pierre Morel jettison tired CGI effects in favor of authentic stunts. According to press notes, Morel based his electrifying set pieces on the concept of Parkour, “a philosophy of action based on total mobility in an urban environment.” It shows. Applying superhuman flexibility worthy of Cirque du Soleil performers, veteran stunt gods Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle swing from pipes, scale walls, and hurl through air ducts like restless gibbons at a city zoo.
“District B13” does everything absolutely right. Its talky, plot-advancing moments shoot by in succinct, hurried bursts. Its camerawork is constantly inventive and sexy, commanding our attention. Meanwhile, BOOM! Expertly choreographed set-pieces staged on rooftops, poker tables, and mean future streets hark back to early John Woo – they’re that volatile and energized.
It’s amazing – and frustrating – to count films hailed as “action genre classics” that actually lack much true kinetic momentum or credibility. Take “Predator,” which certainly had an exciting climax, but too many redundant, early scenes of boring macho men stomping through the jungle. “Commando” dipped its mean-spirited blackmail plot in a phony, “family values” coating (hero kills scads of heavies via bullets, fists, and flying saw blades because he loves his cute-as-a-button daughter). Then there’s the “Mission: Impossible” franchise, which typically builds up to grand finales, after wallowing in cold expository scenes and static setups.
For action films to truly live up to their label, they should come out kicking, screaming, biting, and struggling. If down time is truly needed, it should build our sympathies for those money-shot moments when the heroes finally cut loose and kick supreme a*s. “Hard-Boiled.” “The Road Warrior.” “The Terminator” That’s action! Now, add “District B13” to the pantheon of bare-fisted, bullet-grazed greats.