District B13, the newly-released 2004 French action flick, covers familiar ground, but with speed, style, and parkour. What the heck's parkour? It's the art of navigating urban spaces fast and gracefully, by running, jumping, and climbing, in order to overcome physical obstacles in the quickest and most direct manner. It was developed by David Belle, the stuntman/actor who plays Leito, an anti-drug vigilante who lives in District B13, a poor, crime-plagued Paris suburb (actually filmed in Romania) that's been walled off like a prison and left to rot by a government that's given up on it completely. There are no social services, no schools. Just slimy drug dealers and their street soldiers, warring over turf.
As the film begins, Leito is about to receive a "courtesy" visit from a massive thug, K2, (Tony D'Amario), whose name is shaved into the back of his head. K2 is the head skullcracker for Taha (Bibi Naceri), the biggest dealer in the District. Seems like Leito has gotten hold of some drugs belonging to Taha, who's sent K2 and 12 of his closest friends to see Leito. Seemingly trapped, Leito dives through a casement window, heads for the roof, and parkours his way to safety, leaving several dead thugsters obviously unfamiliar with parkour in his wake.
Taha's men have hijacked a truck that happens to contain a nuclear bomb capable of killing several hundred thousand people. A special operations cop, Damien, played by Cyril Raffaelli, a former French national martial arts champion and stuntman, is assigned to find the bomb, which Taha plans to sell back to the government. The deal goes awry, and Taha's men kidnap Leito's sister, Lola (Dany Verissimo) to serve as a negotiating pawn. Leito is now in prison for killing a cop who allowed his sister to be snatched, but because he's known for his ability to get around the District, he's released and teams up with Damien. Leito soon figures Damien for a cop out to find the bomb and save the lives of the potential victims.
The film, which takes place in 2010 and was actually made in 2004, brings to mind a number of movies depicting urban dystopias, such as Escape from New York, A Clockwork Orange, and (even though there are no androids or cyborgs) the Terminator and Robocop series. The filmmakers in District B13’s production notes state that they made it a point to avoid the use of technology or special effects. However the character of Damien, programmed as he is to be the good cop for whom the mission is everything, has a slightly robotic quality about him.
District does not take itself too seriously and mixes humorous moments in with the mayhem. There's a buffoonish character, Corsini, a burly, long-haired, Spanish-accented thug in a goombah suit who comes across as a hybrid of Al Pacino's sneering Scarface character and Meat Loaf. District’s refusal to get too serious sometimes leaves the plot thin and familiar, but the quality of the action and sheer momentum carry the day. The characters are often cartoonish although Leito, embodying extremes of human nature, comes across as believable and real. The physicality and athleticism of the male leads is impressive, and their team up gives everything the touch of buddy movie. Taha, who takes pleasure in his sociopathy and criminal creativity, proves to be a compelling villain.
District B13 succeeds on most levels. You may not give it much thought afterward, and those who might want to try parkour should be cautioned. Unless you want to end up looking like the victim of a failed Jackass stunt, resist the urge to leap over walls, police barriers, and the like. But for vicarious thrills, it's hard to beat this immensely entertaining film set to the pulsing rhythms of the French rap group Da. Octopusss. French rap: who knew?