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Saturday, 24 April 2010

District B13 (2004)

Director: Pierre Morel
Stars: Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle

The trailer for District 13: Ultimatum looks very cool indeed so it's about time I watched the original, District B13, an unfortunately translated title given that the B is for 'Banlieue' which translates from the French to 'District'. We're in Paris in 2010 and life is apparently not too great in the slums. It's so bad that the government decides to do something serious about it, something they learned from watching Escape from New York. The twist here is that they don't empty the place first and dump in the criminals, they just build isolation walls around the worst barrios and let them rot. We arrive in one of them, District 13, at the time the cops are pulling out for good. That leaves only one man who really seems to care about the people in the slum, a tattooed tough guy by the name of Leïto, who lives in the only building not covered in graffiti and we first see him washing a million bucks worth of cocaine down the drain of his bathtub.

What we find after a tough guy with K2 shaved into the back of his head invades his building with a bunch of armed men to take back those drugs is that David Belle, who plays Leïto, is some sort of human spider who can climb up anything and leap through anything just like a French version of Tony Jaa. The reason for this is that he's not primarily known as an actor, though he's more than capable, he's better known as one of the founders of a non-competitive sport called parkour which involves traversing real life environments as if they were obstacle courses. It's fascinating to watch, which is why it's obviously going to make it big in action films. While Luc Besson was ahead of the curve with District B13, along with Yamakasi in 2001, films to pick up on the concept since are as major as Casino Royale, Cop Out and Live Free or Die Hard. Like Tony Jaa and old school Jackie Chan, the adrenaline rush is palpable and far more effective than mere editing and wires.
K2 is tasked with bringing Leïto and those drugs back to his boss, Taha Ben-Mahmoud, played by the co-writer of the film, Bibi Naceri. Like most of the characters in this film, Taha is reasonably straight forward and without a particular amount of depth. This is an action film, after all, but unlike many it refuses to hold back, and so Taha is more than willing to shoot his own employees dead when they fail him, without any hesitation and without any remorse. Sometimes it's refreshing to see the bad guy in an action movie be happily bad without becoming a villain and without any need for justification. He doesn't need a gimmick, he just needs to be more ruthless than those who probably want to take his place. So without either Leïto or drugs, K2 isn't in a particularly solid position but he avoids Taha's next bullet by coming up with a plan: kidnapping Leïto's tough little sister Lola who works at the supermarket.

Six months later we're introduced to the other star of the film, Cyril Raffaelli, who also did all the fight choreography. He's as much of a physical athlete as David Belle, who also has a black belt to his name, and so we're in for a real nostalgic treat. Again the comparisons have to be to Tony Jaa and old school Jackie Chan, because this is real physical stuntwork, the sort of thing that looks utterly incredible but ends up credible because it's obviously real people doing it. Raffaelli plays Capt Damien Tomaso, a cop who gets to take down an entire underground gambling outfit mostly on his own because he's the man on the inside and the cops outside aren't too quick at joining him. The bad guy here is memorable too, given that he looks like a cross between Ron Jeremy and Danny de Vito, dressed up like a pimp. He also has the mother of all receding hairlines, beyond the Psychlos in Battlefield Earth to be way out there in Klingon territory.
So, these scenes to introduce David Belle as Leïto and Cyril Raffaelli as Tomaso do so in no uncertain terms. They're fast, they're powerful, they're tough, everything that an action hero should be and they don't have to hulk up like Arnie to do it. They're also both good guys, so you can be sure that they're going to team up before long, and sure enough Besson and Naceri promptly introduce a explosive plot device to make that happen. In fact it's a really explosive plot device: a neutron bomb. There are two problems: one is that it's been hijacked with the help of little kids pretending to wash the windows of the armoured truck transporting it, and the other that it has been triggered and will explode in 24 hours. It's now somewhere in District 13 so the secretary of defence tasks Tomaso with finding and defusing it and gives him Leïto to help him, given that he's been locked up for the last six months.

Of course it's not all that simple. They merely set up a situation in which Tomaso and Leïto can be in the same place so he can convince him to help, and that's aided by circumstance. Of course the warhead ends up with Taha. Of course Taha has made a junkie pet out of Lola. Of course there's a twist. No, the plot here isn't surprising in the slightest but it's well put together with the usual Luc Besson style, fuelled by fast cars, fast action and fast dialogue, along with more adrenaline that most action film directors can dream of. If you haven't seen the Crank films, this is going to knock your socks off. In fact it's something of a template, the quintessential action movie with every component part required and not an ounce of fat. It runs a lean 84 minutes long and could easily have been longer without losing the impact it carries. There's even opportunity for a little social comment and growth, but mostly it's glorious old school stuntwork. I miss that.

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