District B13: follow the bouncing Frenchman (David Belle).
This week brings a pair of first rate action thrillers from the mind of Luc Besson, a creative force in French cinema who makes a much better writer-producer than he does a director.
District b13 (2004)
Has it really been almost 20 years since director Pierre Morel’s debut sent David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli spinning like peas on a ball-track that hit the roulette wheel with enough non-stop bounce to propel a dozen action-thrillers? District B13 introduced American audiences to parkour (the art of moving), an energetic style of physical discipline (originated by Belle) that incorporates running, jumping, vaulting, and climbing in a manner reminiscent of the Jackie Chan school of martial arts. There’s a moment when Officer Damien (Raffaelli), too busy being chased to bother opening a car door, whisks cleanly through the open window. A pair of golf balls in the spin cycle are no match for these two bounders.
Screenwriters Luc Besson and Bibi Naceri borrowed a cup of inspiration from John Carpenter’s, Escape From New York, the futuristic sci-fi adventure that finds Manhattan transformed into a maximum security prison. Here, rather than honor the poor people of Paris with a patch of prime real estate, the government relocated what in their estimation were two million examples of the worst humanity had to offer and awarded them a walled suburban ghetto all their own, complete with checkpoints, guard towers, and a razor wire perimeter.
Banlieue 13 is the last stop between barbarity and civilization. Once inside, jerk-zooms that pulse to the rhythm of Da Octopuss’ surging techno score finally come to rest in Leïto’s washroom, where our good-guy-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-law is hurriedly giving 20 kilos of cocaine a bath before mob enforcer K2 (Tony D’Amario) and his gang break down the door. (How do we know he flies under the handle K2? He tipped his barber extra to carve a monogram just above the nape.) Reporting back to bossman Taha (co-writer Naceri), a flummoxed K2 likens the elusive Leïto to a bar of soap. So the fast-thinking K2 comes up with the idea of kidnapping Leïto’s sister to draw him out. Instead of Little Nell tied to the train tracks, it’s feisty little sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) who winds up cuffed to a bomb.
It’s easier to get out of prison than it is to enter District B-13 — unless you’re connected, feared, or both. Security guys don’t just look the other way, they hold open the door for the K2 and his deplorables like they were Capitol insurrectionists. Happily, as before graduating from the School of Hard Knocks, Leïto majored in the art of elusivity. The tattooed-lad can slip through transoms with the ease of a Vaseline-coated fly. And, as with all great actors/daredevils — Keaton, Lloyd, Chan, Knoxville — Belle and Raffaelli do all their own stunts. They make scaling a building look easier than taking an elevator.
Damien is a good cop who is about to learn the error of his ways. A student of criminology, he’ll spend weeks if not months working to crack a case. The government planted a neutron bomb with a ticking timer in the burrough. Damien is not a good fit when it comes to short notice jobs like tracking and defusing a bomb that in three hours has the capability of leveling everything within a 5-mile radius. My Holocaust-Sentimentalizing detector is always set on high — the shot of Ruth Gordon’s wrist-tattoo in Harold and Maude is a deal-killer. This time? “The government wouldn’t sacrifice two million people to solve a problem,” argues Damien. “No?” replies Leïto. “They murdered six million because none of them were blonde with blue eyes.” Way to smuggle, Besson!
District 13: Ultimatum (2009)
It had been five years since Pierre Morel’s action packed District B13 bounced audiences around the multiplex. With rare exceptions (The Godfather Part II, Gremlins 2, Exorcist II: The Heretic) most sequels do little more than rehash whatever it was that made the original click. And I was a tad distressed upon learning that the director wouldn’t have a hand in the follow-up.
Writer-producer Luc Besson appears to have been too busy working on the script to District 13: Ultimatum to give From Paris with Love (also written by Besson and directed by Morel) his full attention. District 13: Ultimatum is everything the Travolta turkey should have been and wasn’t. It’s a shame that those who paid to see Paris won’t go near this. This film and its predecessor pack more action than all the Bourne pictures combined, yet I recall an opening night with no more than 10 people gripping the armrests of the dearly departed Reading Cinemas Gaslamp Theatre. American audiences, too lazy to read subtitles, simply refused to work for their art.
When last we met, disenchanted cop Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) and reformed thug Leïto (David Belle) had just finished saving Paris from a government-planted neutron bomb aimed at blowing up the homeless population confined to District B13. It’s a good thing the duo swapped cell phone numbers. Incapable of reigning in the violence, this time the government decides to execute a nuclear air strike to eradicate the troubled ghetto.
It’s not as tight as the original, and the stunts aren’t as jaw dropping, but this time, the film takes a stronger political stance. The corporation behind the planned bombing is named Harriburton, and in order to thwart the attack, Damien and Leïto recruit the aid of four generally acknowledged threats to white society – a skinhead, black militant, an Arab, and a hot chick with facial tattoos – to help save the day. And not since FDR has a presidential figure (played by Philippe Torreton) been cast in this positive a light.
The opening sequence brings to mind the Chinese restaurant coke bust in From Paris with Love. Instead of relying on quick cuts and a barrage of gunfire that leads up to the money shot (cocaine raining from the ceiling), Besson ups the ante by throwing in stolen works of art and a hero who relies on brains, not bullets. Dressed in drag — think Howard Stern in his Miss America period — Damien uses a Van Gogh, valued at 200 million euros, as a weapon to combat a seemingly endless stream of aggressors.
By the time it was over, I was spent. (The hard driving techno score may have had a hand in my fatigue.) This is director Patrick Alessandrin’s fourth feature and his first action picture. (Prior to D13: U his main stock in trade was romantic comedies!) But my guess is the true auteur behind both Districts was Besson.