Judge David Johnson once had to fight his way out of an apocalyptic ghetto. Then he went surfing.
Who said the French were pussies?
The short blond dude from Kiss of the Dragon and some crazy guy who jumps off of three-story buildings team up in this import actioner from Luc Besson, who puts out about eight movies a week.
Facts of the Case
Originally released in Europe in 2004, District B13 briefly appeared stateside in June 2006, opening only in a handful of theaters. Those fortunate enough to catch it found themselves bombarded with 80-odd minutes packed with stunts unassisted by CGI, a giant bad guy getting slapped around with cinderblocks, a plot ripped from Snake Plissken's personal diaries, rooftop leaping, gunfire, explosions, punches to the face, throbbing techno blasts, and punches to the face.
District B13 sets its story in the near future, where France has been overrun by ghettos. The worst ghetto, the titular district, has been walled off from civilization, forcing the gangsters and the impoverished to war against each other. There is one guy who's trying to salvage the cesspool: Leito (David Belle), an agile, good-hearted bad-ass. Leito does his best to hamstring the drug trade, but the criminal element is not impressed and goes after him. A ridiculously cool chase scene later, Leito finds himself betrayed and jailed by the cops, and hauled off to prison.
Six months later we meet Damien (Cyril Raffaelli, Kiss of the Dragon), an undercover cop, skilled in martial arts and gunplay. Following a hectic shootout in a casino, Damien learns that a nuclear bomb has been swiped by the biggest mobster in District B13. To thwart the ensuing genocide, he teams up with Leito, who is sprung in an elaborate ruse, and employed as a guide through the district. But Leito has only one thing on his mind: saving his sister from the evil clutches of the very man who swiped the bomb.
District B13 is an above-average action film, eschewing any kind of original plotting or involving character development for a full-on assault of loud music and ultra-kinetic stuntwork. This movie is a spectacle, and should be viewed as such. Don't go in expecting a life-changing epiphany-generating creative experience, and prime yourself simply for an onslaught of action coolness, and I submit you will leave a satiated viewer.
The plot really is the weakest part of the film, existing solely as a backdrop to pin some killer stunts on. But, at least Besson and director Pierre Morel (who cut his teeth as a cinematographer on a bunch of Besson projects) know enough to hold back the storytelling to keep the film running lean and mean.
And boy is it mean. The two stars are incredible athletes, and the stunts they pull off are remarkable. Belle is a founder of a sport called Parkour (he describes it as a "means of transportation"), which, as far as I can tell, involves catapulting oneself off of a parking garage. Belle is more of an evasion fighter, opting to lose the bad guy in his wake of gravity-defying aeronautics. On the other hand, Raffaelli, who really impressed me with his skills in Kiss of the Dragon specializes in beating the Ishtar out of his opponents. Both of their opening sequences are hugely different (nicely laying out their "specialty") but equally entertaining. In fact, you may have seen Belle's debut routine on the Internet, where he spends, like, 10 minutes outrunning villains through an apartment complex, jumping through windows, leaping off terraces, sliding down poles, and nearly breaking his ankles in half. Raffaelli's casino sequence is more the in-your-face knuckle sandwich type of brawl, with the guy unleashing some truly hard-ass moves on waves of bad guys. Highly, highly entertaining for both scenes.
But now here is my problem with the film: it never tops those first two make set-pieces. There's still a lot of action forthcoming, but nothing to the grandeur of what happens in the first 15 minutes. Frankly, District B13 blew its wad early, and never built the crescendo of increasingly sweet action scenes founds in flicks like Ong Bak, Kiss of the Dragon and Fist of Legend. There is a nifty tussle between Damien and Leito toward the end, but nothing approaching the energy of the early scenes. Worse, there appeared to be a set-up for a giant brawl with the roid-monster bad guys, but in a serving of cheese, everyone pals around at the end instead.
What we have then is still a good action movie, flush with some real thrills and more than handful of pupil-popping stunts, yet it ultimately can't replicate the thrills from the first act throughout the runtime.
This is an odd DVD. The packaging and front end are, ironically enough, "ghetto" and the video transfer is fairly bland and washed-out, but the extra features are robust and the Dolby Digital EX mix pounds. The making-of documentary clocks in at an impressive 54 minutes and features interviews with cast and crew. Also included: the extended cut of the casino fight sequence that should have been included in the theatrical release, and a blooper reel.
Not the knock-out it could have been, District B13 still manages to entertain with some great stuntwork and a lean runtime. Recommended for action buffs. Oh, and stick with the French language track/English subtitle combo. The dubbing is inane.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment
• The Making of District B13
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