It’s been more than a decade since French director Luc Besson unleashed (for there is no other word) the frenetic, heartbreaking action film Leon, known as The Professional here in the States. But he followed that with The Fifth Element, a pleasantly slick sci-fi actioner that enjoyed a better premise than execution, and from there he turned to The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, a fairly flat period drama. Running out of energy, Besson has contented himself in recent years writing and producing films but letting others handle the actual directing. Besson wrote Kiss of the Dragon as well as The Transporter and its sequel, damning evidence if any was needed that his scripts in others’ hands often turn out dry, uninvolving, and too numb for their own good. This is unfortunately the case with his latest effort, District B13, a stuntfest written and produced by Besson but directed by first-time helmer Pierre Morel, who served as director of photography on The Messenger and Transporter 2. Try as he might, Morel can’t match the consistent energy of classic Besson, and his inexperience coupled with poor structure and some ridiculously simple politics make District B13 a thrilling action film that falls regrettably shy of the mark.
Opening title cards tell us that in Paris by the year 2010, the government has erected walls around its most dangerous ghettoes, the worst of which is District B13. Left to rot, these neighborhoods are now devoid of schools and police stations, though, oddly, there is still a functioning grocery store (I guess even hoods need fresh produce). A gang leader named K2 (Tony D’Amario) shows up with his posse in rides right out of The Fast and the Furious, and they shoot their way into an apartment building on the hunt for Leito (David Belle), who’s nicked a ton of dope from local crime boss Taha (Bibi Naceri). K2 and his crew catch up to Leito, and it’s here that Morel’s film has its first and most enjoyable chase/action sequence. Leito’s attempts to outrun his pursuers are nothing short of breathtaking, a heartstopping sequence of wireless jumps and stunts that offer a jaw-droppingly fresh alternative to most Hollywood action. Belle is cut like a statue and has an insane amount of energy, and can actually fly, or at least appear to, as he bounds off walls and through windows and leaps between rooftops. Watching him soar through an escalating series of stunts is pure joy; imagine watching Neo rush Agent Smith in midair without the aid of computer-rendered effects and you’ll start to understand the fun.
Leito escapes, and when K2 reports back to Taha, the crime lord abducts Leito’s sister, Lola (Dany Verissimo), to flush him out. The thing is, Leito busts in and saves his sister within five minutes, only to have the tables quickly turned in a needlessly complex turn of events involving apathetic cops; long story short, Taha rekidnaps Lola, and Leito goes to prison, at which point Morel fades to black and uses the screenplay kiss of death, the “Six months later” title card. We’re thrust into a prolonged action sequence in which Damien (Cyril Raffaelli), a cop, lays waste to dozens of henchmen in an underground casino using his wits, found objects, and some truly spectacular displays of physical prowess. Raffaelli is actually a stuntman, which works out perfectly for Morel, who doesn’t demand anything from the character other than a willingness to get beat up and enter into huge brawls with little or on provocation. It’s an entertaining sequence, but my attention was never fully on the action because I couldn’t get Leito out of my head: How was he going to get out of prison? What the hell happened to Lola? Why the throwaway prologue/first act? Would we see those characters again, or was this just going to be a series of vignettes, maybe 32 Short Films About Living in a Drug-Addled Wasteland? Where did this cop, Damien, come from?
At this point I slapped myself and realized I was way, way overthinking things. Way. So I turned off most of my brain and sat back to enjoy the ride, which I did. Trust me, reducing your nervous system to a skeleton crew is the only way to watch one of these movies.
Through another necessary but still too convoluted turn of events, Leito and Damien pair up to storm District B13. Taha’s kept Lola in his possession all this time, coking her up and reducing her to a junkie he keeps leashed to his chair. While Leito wants nothing more than to save Lola, he also wants to help Damien track down a bomb that Taha stole from the police and smuggled into B13, accidentally arming it in the process. So Leito and Damien infiltrate the district and fight progressively tougher adversaries on the way to their respective goals. It feels at time an awful lot like a video game, and that’s not a bad thing. The techno music, breathless pace, and fluid editing all serve the film well, and except for an inappropriately somber bit of orchestration set to one of the chase scenes, all of the action is riveting.
It’s the film’s failure to engage you on a personal level, to make you care even slightly about these characters, that keeps it from moving beyond the level of mindless action. Morel attempts to infuse the film with some degree of social and political commentary, though most of the rationalizations come across as either too simplistic or too glib. When Leito makes accusations that the bomb might be a plant to intentionally destroy the district, Damien flares up that the government wouldn’t kill 2 million people because they’d run out of ideas for crime prevention, to which Leito flippantly replies, “Six million people died for not having blond hair and blue eyes.” Nothing like a good ol’ Holocaust generalization to motivate the mass of unemployed youth, in Morel’s opinion. Thankfully, though, Morel keeps such tangents to a minimum, and the film is best when he leaves it to the blistering fight scenes and escalating body count. From top to bottom, District B13 is a beautifully styled film that delivers a surge of adrenaline at the start and then coasts gently for 90 minutes. There are worse ways to kill an afternoon.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.Jump, Lola, Jump
Film | June 2, 2006 | Comments ()