Media : La vie en ass-kick

French actioner District B13 ain’t high art, but it packs a wallop

If you’ve ever sat around pondering what Jackie Chan would look like after a week-long cocaine-and-Red-Bull binge, then you’re about to get the answer. Banlieue 13 (District B13), the latest project from producer and directorial has-been Luc Besson, is a hyperkinetic 85-minute ode to David Belle in much the same way that Ong-Bak is to Tony Jaa. Belle, the founder of Parkour, an art form of uninterrupted movement through one’s environment, spends much of the film demonstrating how damn pathetic, out-of-shape, and lazy his audience is by leaping through windows most people couldn’t crawl through, climbing balconies three times as fast as you’d climb a ladder, and jumping over people, cars, buildings, water buffalo (OK, no water buffalo, but pretty much anything else you can think of) as his character Leito fights to save his sister from a French ghetto ripped right out of Escape from New York.

The year is 2010 and Paris has gone the route of John Carpenter, condemning its shittiest neighborhoods to lawlessness by building walls that keep the crime in and the cops out. Leito and his sister Lola live on the inside of one called District B13, but Leito’s refusal to play by the druglord’s rules has earned him a death mark. To escape it, he has to, you know, do amazing things with his body that would, if Belle wasn’t onscreen, probably get him committed to an asylum for suicidal tendencies. Lucky for us, he’s a movie star now and throwing oneself 30 feet through the air seems perfectly reasonable when a camera is rolling and paychecks are being written. To capture Belle’s remarkable speed and death-defying stunts, first-time director Pierre Morel even had to use a special high-speed camera that recorded 150 frames per second instead of the normal 24.

District B13
Dir. Pierre Morel; writ. Luc Besson, Bibi Naceri; feat. Cyril Raffaelli, David Belle, Tony D’Amario, Naceri (R)

Needless to say, the drug cartel out to get Leito is also amazed by his high-flying antics; one thug even describes him as being like soap, which is pretty much the only good line of dialogue in a film that, if it were 1992, would star Jean-Claude Van Damme or Step by Step superstar Sasha Mitchell. Like Ong-Bak and pretty much everything else Besson produces these days (The Transporter, Unleashed), it’s not about the story. It’s about making the audience scream, “Holy shit — no he didn’t!” (Of course, in French it probably sounds a bit more exotic.)

To complicate matters, the druglord Taha wins. Through a chain of events too complicated, quick and totally nonsensical to list here, Leito is locked up in prison outside the wall and Lola winds up chained to Taha’s desk like Princess Leia, too forcibly doped-up to even grumble about it (sort of his own personal Katie Holmes). Sometime later, a nuclear weapon of some variety, something that looks like a dildo for giants, ends up in District B13 and a cop with some martial-arts skills and enough fearlessness to rival Leito’s is sent undercover to get it back by any means necessary — which, of course, means roundhouse kicks and slow-motion aerial somersaults. Problem is, he can’t do it alone — guess who he needs (and no, it’s not Steven Seagal).

Unfortunately, this cop called Damien (stuntman and sometime actor Cyril Rafaelli), can’t tell Leito what he’s after (who knows why?) and Leito is just waiting for the chance to make a break for his sister and some more head-breaking action. Oh, the hijinks these two get up to while debating what makes a Frenchman a real Frenchman, subtly jabbing U.S. international policy, fighting each other, and, oh, taking on an army of machine-gun wielding thugs who all look like characters from the WWE ... There’s a twist at the end that almost makes the story — at least thematically — work, but that’s a big “almost.”

Again, ignore the fact that Besson and Morel are responsible for shitfests like The Transporter, Kiss of the Dragon, and Unleashed. Hell, Banlieue 13 isn’t all that much different. But it has Belle and, seriously, that’s worth the price of admission, your girlfriend’s ticket, a popcorn to share, two sodas, some Reese’s Pieces because she needs something sweet, and the jackass talking on his cell phone in the back of the theater.

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