District 13 Review

Didn’t Luc Besson once spend his time directing cool movies? Maybe it was the lukewarm critical and commercial reception to his take on Joan of Ark that did it, for the last few years have seen the huge talent behind Leon and Nikita whittle away his time producing such vacuous time-wasters as The Transporter and scripting even more simplistic movies like Unleashed and District 13.

For here we have a dumb futuristic action-thriller that even the press notes admits pilfers heavily from Escape from New York and Ong-Bak. The titular district (or ‘Banlieu 13’ in its native French) is a violent Paris slum that is so out-of-control that the authorities have constructed a giant wall around it, allowing the occupants to fight it out for themselves inside. This rather dubious slice of domestic policy allows the area to fall under the grip of vicious drug-dealer Taha (Naceri), who maintains control of the district with the aid of a colourful bunch of armed thugs. When a timebomb apparently capable of blowing Paris apart falls into the hands of the gang, the authorities send in a mismatched tough-guy duo to resolve the situation. First up there’s Leito (Belle), an ex-Banlieue 13 resident languishing in jail who is far more interested in rescuing his sister from Taha’s clutches than in saving Paris. Then there’s Damien (Raffaelli), a fearless copper with the apparent ability to high-kick his way out of any situation. Together the two venture into the urban badlands, using a combination of violence and quick-thinking (though mainly violence obviously) just to stay alive.

District 13’s script is astonishingly simple. If it wasn’t for the liberal dose of ultra-violence and swearing you might suspect that the whole exercise had been written for kids. Seriously, you have to wonder if Besson (and co-writer Naceri) cobbled the whole thing together in the limo on the way back from a particularly bestial cocktail-party. Evil drug-dealers, simplistic goodies and a surprise-free plot trajectory (unless you include the logic-defying “twist”); this isn’t exactly a La Haine-style essay on urban alienation. The casual, stylised violence is mostly gratuitous, as though the filmmakers have gorged themselves on one-too-many Tony Scott movies, and there’s also a macho sense of carefree sexism running through the picture that occasionally leaves a nasty taste in the mouth (though Dany Verissimo does give a great spirited performance as Leito’s sister – at least until she’s turned into a doped-up slave after the first half hour).

Yet, under the auspices of first-time director Pierre Morel, there’s scarcely time to pause for breath in District 13 as layer-upon-layer of dazzling, inventive action scenes and choppy visuals are piled on. From the early breathless freerunning chase with thugs pursuing Leito down the sides of an apartment block to Damien’s one-man-army battling hundreds of gangsters at an illegal gambling den, the fight-scenes are fast, funny and effortlessly thrilling. Raffaelli and Belle aren’t exactly graced with well-rounded characters, but they make a winning enough double-act and, like Tony Jaa in Ong-Bak, their electric fight skills are up there with the very best martial-arts stars.

Style over substance isn’t exactly something new to a movie associated with Luc Besson. But films such as The Big Blue and Nikita did seem to have a psychological depth behind their flashy visuals; behind District 13 are entirely white walls. Still, at less than 90 minutes it’s clever enough not to outstay its welcome and, dumb script or not, it’s certainly never boring – which isn’t something you can say about inflated action pictures like Bad Boys 2. District 13 proves that Hollywood doesn’t have the final word in the big, brainless actioner stakes, and at least it does it with a lot of style and some very cool fights.

AKA Banlieu 13

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