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Those who're chomping at the bit for the delayed Fast & Furious 7 will cheer for Brick Mansions, a gritty and gonzo action movie with the late Paul Walker at its center, and some bonkers car-chase scenes to boot.
An English-language remake of the hit French actioner Banlieue 13 (A.K.A. District B13), Brick Mansions wholesale shifts the plot from Paris to a dilapidated and divided Detroit. There, the most dangerous part of the city -- the titular Brick Mansions projects -- is physically separated from the rest of Detroit by massive concrete walls and military guards. The people inside are left to their own devices, without the government intervention or assistance of cops, schools, or hospitals. The streets of Brick Mansions are overrun with violence and drugs, which inspires one long-time resident, Lino (David Belle), to fight back for his community.
At the start of the film, Lino has stolen a hefty shipment of hard drugs from local kingpin Tremaine (RZA). Using the street-art fighting style of parkour, he deftly and remarkably evades his would-be captors. Tremaine won't be beat so easily, though, and he kidnaps Lino's ex-girlfriend, Lola (Catalina Denis), to lure him in.
In the meantime, undercover cop Damien (Paul Walker) is making his way into this dangerous neighborhood in search of a bomb Tremaine's crew has stolen from the military. Detroit's mayor has charged him with deactivating the device, but first he has to find it. And that means teaming up with Lino.
Fans of District B13 will find only superficial changes to the plot, like the shift in location, the changing of Lola from little sister to ex-girlfriend, and the addition of a vampy new henchman played by Brazilian Jiujutsu competitor Ayisha Issa, which offers some change-ups in the third act. This last revision also means some lame women-in-prison sex and violence, the remake's laziest flourish. Similarly sexist and uninspired is how Lola's character is less proactive and resilient in this version, especially in the climax. But by and large, its plot is barely changed.
Even several of the action scenes have almost a beat-for-beat repetition. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. The producers smartly brought back parkour expert and District B13 star Belle to reprise his role (formerly called Leito). Belle hasn't lost a step in the 10 years since the original, ably throwing himself around the urban terrain with a fearlessness that is astonishing. Once again he bursts forth in the intro scene with such fantastic athleticism, confidence, and showmanship that it is nothing short of spectacular.
Walker is given his fair share of action sequences as well, but they’re less “parkour,” and more car-centric chaos -- like a wonderfully thrilling scene that has him dangling from a trunk as a fleeing criminal speeds down a highway. But as convincing as Walker is an action hero, it's unbelievable that he'd be able to beat Belle, whose stunt work seems as natural to him as breathing. Still, it was a blast to see Walker outside the Fast & Furious franchise, still charming and still kicking ass.
RZA rounds out the central trio, and obviously has a lot of fun playing Tremaine. He relishes in scenes where the character casually cooks family recipes while doling out death threats, and slyly slings off Wu-Tang lyrics with a wink. RZA's acting style has never been especially subtle, but that works here. Brick Mansions is essentially a live-action cartoon with a barrage of thinly drawn characters who are mostly made to grimace, growl and fight.
There's little to no emotional depth in the film, and there are clunky elements… like the French-fluent Belle's struggle to deliver clear English dialogue. Plus a massive amount of scenes seem awkwardly overdubbed despite everyone clearly speaking English. But to be perfectly frank: who cares?
Brick Mansions, at its core, is about community and mind-blowing action. Both are established in the first scene, where Lino slickly slips through his neighbors' apartment windows to escape Tremaine's crew. His neighbors wave hello, or barely blink as he blazes by. But when the thugs invade, they spring into action, setting up the feel of a neighborhood that's not as far-gone as the richer citizens of Detroit might believe. In this sense, Brick Mansions shares a thematic thread with Fast & Furious, where family matters above all else. And it's easy to imagine this film as a parallel universe where Brian O'Conner lived in Detroit and worked narco instead of grand larceny cases.
In the end, Brick Mansions is a bit messy, but first-time director Camille Delamarre delivers stellar action sequences and a wild ride. His eye for what works in action scenes should come as no surprise, as he made his mark editing movies like Transporter 3, Columbiana and Taken 2. He doesn't veer far from the original District B13 blueprint, but it's hard to be bothered by that when Brick Mansions is still so much fun. Apart from the rousing stunt sequences, Delamarre also collected a solid ensemble. His leads play well together, but even small roles like Rayzah and drug lord George the Greek zing thanks to vibrant performances from Issa--with her gleeful malevolence--and Carlo Rota. (Dear Hollywood, put these two in many more things, immediately. Thanks!)
All in all, Brick Mansions doesn't take nearly as many risks as its heroes. All the same, it offers an insane and satisfying adventure, loaded with exhilarating action sequences, and pumped up with vivid performances.