A film review by Craig J. Koban
2006, R, 85 mins.
Cyril Raffaelli: Damien
Leito / Tony D'Amario:
K2 / Larbi Naceri: Taha
Directed by Pierre Morel / Written by Luc Besson and Larbi Naceri
DISTRICT B13 goes out of its way to prove a long-standing theory that I have about the movies:
Certain films do not necessarily have to be smart and intelligent in order for them to be highly entertaining.
Actually, after I saw this French action film and left the theatre I more than ever reaffirmed my stance that going to the movies is an awful lot like going out to eat.
Please, hear me out.
Movies are a lot like food. Obviously – when one is looking for a delicacy or something truly fine to dine on – a person might want a luscious, delicious, and ever-so-tasty fillet mignon. This food is not cheap, is made with a great deal amount of personal care and attention, and the end results are almost always savory and enjoyable. There are fillet mignon films and they stimulate us and work on levels beyond those beneath them. MUNICH is a grand fillet mignon film. As is UNITED 93. Oh, I could go on forever beyond those more recent choices. I think you get the general idea.
But alas, there are many times in a person’s life where all they really crave is something inexpensive, tasty, and readily digestible. These foods are not altogether good for you, but in modest dosages they can sure hit the spot just right. Clearly, a Big Mac is – on its levels – highly delicious. With its two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions…all gloriously served on a sesame seed bun…it’s no wonder why it’s an easily available, quick, and palatable option. Now, A Big Mac is not fillet mignon (it by no means achieves the gracefulness that mignon aspires to be). Yet, on certain days oft the week, nothing seems to go down the pipe better than a good ol’ Big Mac. Hmmmm.
Yes, there are Big Mac movies, ones that never aspire to be fillet mignon movies, but they digest well all the same. Now, they clearly don’t have the same lofty expectation levels as fillet mignon, but that is part of their ungainly amount of allure. When you go and order a Big Mac and scarf it down, you pretty much know precisely what you are getting. Sure, some days they go down really, really well and on other days you sort of want to avoid them like the plague. I have eaten my fair share of Big Macs. I know that – on certain levels – they are not altogether nutritious for me. Nevertheless, I indulge myself and readily enjoy them...from time to time.
DISTRICT B13 is one of the great recent Big Mac films. It is not a delicacy. It is by no means a fine dining experience at the cinema. Those expecting intelligence, wit, and thorough intrigue on a story and character level are well advised to avoid this film at all costs. Dialogue is laughably atrocious, character development is ominously one note, and the narrative itself is enthusiastically forgettable. No, the sheer enjoyment factor that can be derived out of this action film is purely kinetic, almost primeval. Much like the early films of Jackie Chan, DISTRICT B13 can sincerely and eagerly be forgiven for being dumber than a bag of hammers because it succeeds on its chosen visceral and kinetic levels. The film thrills on superficial elements and its willingness to go out of its way to be inventive and breathlessly exciting with its action set pieces are what makes it work. It’s pure Big Mac cinema…all the way.
Even if the film’s incredibly odd title throws you off, the makers behind the camera might be vaguely familiar. This is the feature film debut of Pierre Morel, who served as the cinematographer of the first TRANSPORTER film, one of the defining examples of a genre I like to call Cinema of Incredulity (you know, that type of action film where you shake you head at utter disbelief at the inane sights, but sort of come out of the theatre with a sly smile on your face and an odd amount of reverence for all of it reality defying mayhem). The co-writer of DISTRICT B13 - Luc Besson - was also the co-writer of THE TRANSPORTER and other martial arts films like Jet Li’s KISS OF THE DRAGON and 2005’s lackluster and silly UNLEASHED. I have often criticized Besson for abandoning directing (he has made some very good films, like LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL and THE FIFTH ELEMENT) for writing more mainstream and simple-minded fare.
Yet, I can’t criticize DISTRICT B13 for being silly. That would be equally dumb. It is the film’s very silliness and endless supply of moments of disbelief that made me admire it. On top of that, the film’s two leads - Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle – give virtuoso physical performances of such bold, astonishing, and incredible athletic and super human acrobatics that allow me to make appropriate comparisons to the stunts of Jackie Chan. These guys may look like rejected members of a one hit boy band, but by God, are they ever talented. They are that good, folks. They literally hurtle themselves into breakneck action sequences with such a vigor, intensity, and complete lack of disregard to their own safety that you kind of have to respect them by default. The sheer momentum and transfixing allure that these two relative unknowns bring to their individual action scenes are no less short of amazing. On its simplistic aims and aspirations, no action fan should leave the film disappointed. Raffaelli and Belle are revelations. Their work here deserves equal merit with the accomplishments of some of their Asian cousins in Hong Kong cinema. High praise, indeed.
As for the story? Well…let’s face it…it’s pure, unadulterated hogwash; a relative close line for the film’s remarkable action scenes. The film is in French, set in Paris, and has subtitles, but one could just as easily watch the film’s sights and simply ignore the words (this film gets its energy from what it shows us, not from what it tells us). It is set in the near future (2010, to be precise) where Paris’ ghettos have been barricaded away from the rest of decent society. A gigantic wall has been erected to segregate all of the “undesirable” elements away from the more affluent and well-to-do populace. Heaven forbid, someone from the ghetto may spill out into the normal sections of Paris and cause some havoc?
Anyhow, this walled in ghetto – which goes by the moniker District B13 (the film does not have the time to take us on a tour of District B1 through 12, nor do we get to see any of the A categories) – is ruled by vile and sadistic drug lords. One lord in particular – the unreservedly terrible Taha (Larbi Naceri) rules with an iron fist. He has one evil henchman at his side (the one that he chooses not to kill when upset) named K2 (Tony D’Amario). Of course, it will take a highly unlikely pair of chop-socky heroes to team up, get over their respective differences, and band together to stop the kingpin and rescue B13 from tyranny.
One of the men is Damien (Raffaeilli), a very good undercover cop who likes to play by the book. The other man is a street vigilante that likes to disregard the law, Leito (Belle). The two, of course, don’t seem to see eye to eye, but they both share the innate similarity in their respective abilities to lunch themselves with limitless speed and dexterity to dispatch of bad guys with a rapidity and poise that would have make Bruce Lee blush. However, the two team up when – yikes – Leito realizes that his baby sister Lola has been kidnapped by the despicable drug lord and that – gasp – the dug lord has a stolen nuclear weapon that has been started and will go off in 24 hours. Their mission is to diffuse the bomb, save the girl, defeat Taha, and do a very fair amount of inflicting pain on henchman with they characteristic ferocity and skill.
To call DISTRICT B13 a one note exercise in martial arts violence misses the point altogether. The film is violent, but not in a vicious and masochistic manner that headlines many modern horror films (it is as graphic as your typical kung fu outing). The power of the film is purely on it’s one note sensibilities to display Belle and Raffaelli throw themselves headfirst into scene after scene of slickly edited and ingeniously choreographed set pieces that will leave you stunned and amazed. Some of the individual moments are among the most brisk, rousing, and wonderfully crafted of anything I’ve seen recently. Consider an opening chase scene that is astounding in execution. Leito is being chased by criminals, but this is not your typical chase. He throws himself through windows (often mere inches wide), lunges from roof top to roof top, dives from scaffolding, somersaults down stairwells…and so on. He’s like a living embodiment of Spider-Man. The fact that he does this without the apparent use of harnesses or lame CGI effects is noteworthy. It helps to sell the immaculate illusions of daredevil worship that much more.
The makers claim that nearly 90 per cent of the film’s action scenes and stunt were used without the aid of harnesses, wires, or computer trickery and it definitely shows. At a remarkably sparse 85 minutes, DISTRICT B13 has arguably more death-defying moments of thrills and derring-do than many recent longer, overstuffed action films. The film does not care about being a serious exploration of a dystopian future in France with political overtones about social inequity (the film’s few moments dealing with such issues is pretty heavy handed and hilariously inept), and nor it should. The film exists for it’s brilliant action, and so many scenes are handled with such a consummate professionalism and graceful assurance that you truly can gain a sense of the overall zest the stars and makers had for wowing us at every turn. DISTRICT B13 has a ten-cent brain, but million dollar instances of adrenaline pumped chaos. It's a real rush.
I am not sure what else to say about the film, other than to emphasize that it's a failure as a piece of thought-provoking science fiction that delves into French socio-economic policy. Nah, those are completely superfluous entities. The story is pure cornball, but in-between those decidedly cheesy and ridiculous attempts at forging a story with a heartbeat comes moments of heart-attack inducing and utterly dazzling stunt work. The narrative and characters come from the stock, cardboard factory of clichés and Besson is definitely too good of a filmmaker to slum around in these type of intellectual bankrupted waters. Yet, to repeat, DISTRICT B13 rises above mediocrity. The film is a lean and mean B-grade flick that is a pure hoot, and stars Belle and Raffaelli are two walking, running, kicking, and flying 85-minute highlight reels. If taken at face value, this French import is an insane and surprising amount of fun, and it just may make you want to rush to the drive through on the way home for a mouth watering Big Mac.
Sure, you may want fillet mignon tomorrow, but after DISTRICT B13, a Big Mac will do just fine.