For anyone who associates French films with moody, slow paced black & white art-house fare filled with meaningful looks and aloof Frenchmen smoking Gauloises, this is sure to disappoint. For those look more favourably upon Hollywood popcorn action extravaganzas it should prove to be something of an eye-opener.
With Luc Besson (Nikita, Léon, Taxi, The Fifth Element) both producing the film and co-writing the screenplay, this film wasn’t terribly likely to offend me but I had no idea how first-time director Pierre Morel would handle the job. Having left the screening with a wry smile on my face and looking forward to the 60 mile trip home on my motorbike at what might be termed “legally questionable speeds”, suffice to say that I wouldn’t object to seeing more of his work in the future.
The movie is set in 2013, and dispenses with the American “80 Marlboro a day” voiceover introduction in favour of a slightly more subtle treatment (plus subtitles for the non-francophones) to bring us up to pace with the next seven years of our future – a future in which the suburbs of Paris are beset by crime, with the notorious District 13 having been cordoned off from the urbane centre-ville by vast concrete security walls and police checkpoints for the thick end of three years.
Leïto (David Belle) is seemly the only good guy in a bad area, trying to keep the dealers and pimps away from his block by playing off against local gang overlord Taha (Bibi Naceri) and his goons. Ultimately he falls foul of Taha and ends up in prison, from which he escapes during a prisoner transfer with an undercover cop (and martial arts expert) as his accomplice…
Now, I should point out that much of the early criticism of this film has been on grounds of plot, and I’d have to say that it is indeed the weak point – it’s simple, somewhat derivative fare.
Here’s the breakdown – good guy tries to keep his little part of a decaying urban landscape semi-clean, good guy loses out to bad guy, good guys’ sister gets turned into junkie concubine by bad guy, bad guy ends up in possession of dangerous weapon while good guy does upside-down situps in jail, good guy gets picked to act as guide to even more good guy undercover cop Damian (Cyril Raffaelli) , good guy cop earns grudging respect from good guy criminal, buddy movie ensues. Fights happen, good guys win, girl immediately and miraculously de-toxes in the blink of an eye, everyone likes happily ever after.
So why watch such one-dimensional near-future societal-decay nonsense? Because it’s bloody spectacular, that’s why!
David Belle is one of the originators of Le Parkour, or Free Running as the more anglo-centric media would have it. Still greek to you? If you’re a brit, do you remember the BBC ident with the bloke running and jumping across rooftops to get home to watch telly? Well that bloke was David Belle, and there was no wire work or camera trickery involved – he really can leap (between) tall buildings in a single bound.
Belle’s philosophy of Parkour is the fluid progress from A to B without being hindered by structures or other obstacles, and I’d love to know how the cameras keep up with him. Some of the stunts and action sequences are absolutely breathtaking – all the more so when you realise that he did them himself and with little or no safety equipment.
Belle has been somewhat sidelined by the English speaking media in their coverage of Le Parkour, as they have favoured the more stylised and ostentatious path taken by the british Urban Freeflow crew and their French inspiration, Sebastien Foucan (who co-founded Le Parkour with Belle, but later fell out over “artistic differences”). Belle has little time for the flips and tricks favoured by the UF team, preferring the more direct path and advocating grace and speed over flair and ostentation.
To counterpoint Belle’s relentless forward speed and flow, Cyril Raffaelli brings martial arts prowess to the mix as über-cop Damian, along with a good helping of gymnastic skill. As a first class martial artist, Rafaelli works superbly alongside Belle to provide explosive combat sequences punctuated by typically wry buddy-movie dialogue.
Sure, he’s no Van Damme… but that’s a good thing. He fights hard, never once does the splits supported by two chairs, and doesn’t get beaten to a pulp only to make a last-gasp heroic comeback with an amazing spinning kick. He just beats the crap out of people with flourish, style, wit, and breathtaking pace.
For those looking for some female eye-candy to round out the muscle-fest, Leïto’s sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) is easy on the eye albeit in a “cute but crazy french chick with a gun” kind of way.
Overall the plot is derivative, the ending is a let-down, and the characters aren’t likely to rival a more rounded, character-driven piece, but as an example of action-packed film-making it’s truly excellent.
If you want depth of characterisation, riveting dialogue, or a life-changing experience then this is not the film for you.
If, on the other hand you want 85 minutes of entertaining action that beats recent Hollywood fare to the ground without dropping its cigarette and then stands on its opponents throat until it turns blue, you could do worse than hand over your hard-earned cash and grab a ticket for District 13.