From the fertile imagination of Luc Besson comes District B13, an energetic sci-fi thrill ride loaded with mind-boggling fight scenes, oodles of Euro-hip atmosphere, and even some pointed social commentary on France’s current state of affairs. Pierre Morel makes an impressive directorial debut with this tale of a 2010 Paris in which ruthless syndicates rule walled-off suburbs that the government has long since given up for lost. Two men, one a cop and one a felon, are recruited to infiltrate a drug lord’s gang and defuse a bomb before two million innocent people go up in flames.
I used to have this recurring dream in which I’m being chased through various landscapes by a host of unseen adversaries. The venue might change – it could be a shopping mall, abandoned schoolhouse, or construction site – but in each case, I have the ability to leap staircases with a single bound, climb walls, and squeeze through the tightest spaces to evade capture. It’s a liberating feeling and I always wake up disappointed to find that gravity still has a hold on me. David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli, the supremely gifted stars of the giddy French import District B13, have succeeded in bringing this dream to life with their open defiance of Sir Newton’s laws. From one outlandishly staged fight and chase sequence to another, they wage war against an army of thugs across a dizzying array of rooftops and balconies with a combination of martial arts and gymnastics that is breathtaking to behold.
This is one of the first feature films to showcase the discipline known as “parkour,” founded by Belle. With a focus on uninterrupted, efficient forward motion over and around obstacles, this extreme sport produces a balletic mixture of climbing, vaulting, and impossible leaps across urban landscapes, creating a new action film aesthetic that looks entirely unique. What’s even more impressive is that 90% of the acrobatics were performed without the aid of wires, CGI, or any other special effects, adding a bone-crunching element of realism to some astonishing chop-socky moments. Mix in a thumping techno soundtrack and you’ve got yourself an eye-popping, pulse-pounding adrenaline fest timing in at a brisk 85 minutes.
I won’t spend much time on the threadbare plot since it merely serves its purpose as filler between the action sequences. The film opens in an apartment in District B13, one of the forgotten walled-off Parisian slums where the government’s neglect has allowed lawlessness to reign. The idealistic Leito (Belle) has decided to defy local kingpin Taha (Bibi Naceri, who co-wrote the screenplay with Besson) and his henchman K2 (the beefy Tony D’Amario) and rid his neighborhood of the scourge of drugs. A series of unfortunate events leads to Leito’s sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) being kidnapped by Taha, and Leito landing in jail. Soon thereafter it’s discovered that a “clean” bomb capable of annihilating the entire city has fallen into Taha’s hands, and wouldn’t you know it, the darn thing’s set to detonate in a matter of hours. Damien (Raffaelli), a renegade cop assigned to defuse the bomb, recruits the services of Leito, who knows the innermost details of Taha’s organization, to save the day and retrieve little sis before it’s too late.
What follows is the usual succession of captures and escapes, showdowns and countdowns, as the reluctant duo grow to trust one another and put aside their differences to bring down the villain. Belle and Raffaelli (a former stuntman who choreographed the rousing fight scenes) fare surprisingly well as novice actors, projecting enough charisma to keep us interested in those few quiet moments when they’re not airborne. Naceri seems to be having a blast chewing the scenery as the coked-up Taha, even getting a chance to channel Pacino in a blatant Scarface homage. Dany Verissimo, who got her showbiz start in a less savory genre, is the very definition of gamine (let’s just call her the Audrey Tautou of adult films). The script even takes a few potshots at France’s current leadership, suggesting that recent events like last year’s youth riots in Paris foretell an increasingly volatile situation that will only worsen if the government continues to turn a blind eye to the problem.
In the end, though, it’s all window dressing for the expertly edited action sequences that comprise the heart of the film. Raffaelli dispatches a dozen or so baddies in a blistering casino battle that rivals the best work of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, or the apparent heir to the throne, Tony Jaa. David Belle becomes a Peter Pan/Spiderman hybrid as he scampers up walls and leaps over speeding cars, displaying a fluidity and economy of motion that will have you rewinding the scene to confirm what you just witnessed. Yes, the story’s a bit silly and clichéd, but you won’t be able to take your eyes off the brutal ballet that sets District B13 apart from more traditional fare.
Magnolia Home Entertainment’s disc version of District B13 offers both the original French language version with English and Spanish subtitles as well as a poorly dubbed English language option. I’d urge you to make the extra effort and read the subtitles to hear the original actors’ voices – dubbing is just a ridiculous practice.
Thankfully, the “Making Of” documentary, which at an hour is almost as long as the movie itself, spends ample time detailing the choreography, rehearsals, and execution of the intricate fight sequences. It’s astounding that there weren’t any major injuries during the production as the actors/stuntmen hurl themselves at brick walls, moving cars, and each other over and over to craft that perfect shot. Morel, who was the D.P. on films like The Transporter before this, seemed genuinely shocked when Besson approached him to direct. He seemed to give way quite often on set to Raffaelli, the mastermind behind the martial artistry on display. Watch him practice jumping into an open car window or witness Belle navigating the plunge through a tiny slit above a door frame to truly appreciate the difficulty of their craft.
The disc also contains an extended version of the casino sequence, which adds little to the already impressive battle showpiece, and a selection of outtakes. While some are the traditional bloopers involving flubbed lines, the majority are of the more painful variety involving stray fists and elbows. I have a new appreciation for the work of stuntmen after watching what they go through to produce scenes of this quality. I would have liked to see additional time spent on the extreme sport of parkour, including more footage of Belle’s earlier work, to see how it has evolved. But I guess that’s what “YouTube” is for these days.