Cyril Raffaelli as Damien
David Belle as Leïto
Tony D’Amario as K2
Bibi Naceri as Taha
Dany Verissimo as Lola
François Chattot as Krüger
Nicolas Woirion as Corsini
Patrick Olivier as Le colonel
Samir Guesmi as Jamel
Jérôme Gadner as K2 boy 1
Tarik Boucekhine as Yoyo
Grégory Jean as Para 2
Warren Zavatta as Para 3
Dominique Dorol as Cerbère Taha
Ludovic Berthillot as Le gros mercenaire
Directed by Pierre Morel
Once you get past the sometimes ridiculous cliche-driven story and characters, it’s hard not to marvel at the impressive mix of martial arts action with the relatively new art of Parkour.
In the near future of 2010, two guys from different sides of the law are forced to work together to recover a nuclear device that has been stolen by a mob boss who runs France’s crime-ridden District B13 slums.
Trying to critically analyze a movie with any association to Luc Besson may be a lesson in futility, because let’s face it, it’s always going to be more about the action and fighting than the writing. As Besson’s latest high concept idea, “District B13” is par for the course, an action movie he co-wrote before handing it off to his frequent cinematographer Pierre Morel.
The premise falls somewhere between sci-fi and “City of God” with a set-up that makes you think you’re about to watch a movie set in some distant future. Actually, it’s only 2010 and the section of Paris referred to in the movie’s title is like any slum run by gangs and drug dealers. Entering the story in the middle, we’re introduced to the film’s first hero, Leïto (David Belle), when a “gangsta” with a “K2” shaved into his scalp shows up to question him about stolen drugs.
After a lot of shooting, Leïto escapes, giving David Belle a chance to show off his particular talent, known as Parkour. Essentially, Parkour is the art of running away, rather than fighting. As cowardly as that might sound, it’s pretty amazing to watching Belle using all sorts of techniques to escape from his pursuers, leaping across high buildings and rappelling along the building face. The area kingpin Taha isn’t happy about Leïto’s escape, so he has K2 kidnap Leïto’s younger sister Lola, but during a botched rescue, Leïto is jailed by a corrupt cop and Lola becomes the drug-addled plaything for Lola.
Six months laterthe leap forward in time being as jarring as Belle’s Parkour moves–we meet another gangster, who is quickly taken down by an undercover cop named Damien, played by martial artist Cyril Raffaelli, in an exciting extended fight sequence. What does this have to do with Leïto or his missing sister, you ask? Well, Damien’s next assignment is to break into District B13 and recover a stolen nuclear weapon that can wipe out 15 square blocks. Of course, he’ll need help, so he’s paired with the unruly prisoner who knows the area well. (Yup, you guessed it!) Using typical ’80s action movie logic, it’s decided that the duo should be able to work together to recover the bomb, if they don’t kill each other first. In an inverse of “Escape From New York,” they break into District B13 and try to negotiate with Taha to get the weapon back or at least disarm it before it explodes. Of course, Taha has already made plans to fire the bomb into the center of Paris with Leïto’s sister attached to it.
No, it’s not the type of plot you can think about too much, but this is the world of Luc Besson, after all, complete with sullen anti-heroes who wantonly kill regardless of which side of the law they’re on, the goonish thugs and an over-the-top mob boss. None of that really matters though, because every time one of the numerous action scenes kick off, you know you’re in for a good five or ten minutes of non-stop thrills. In this case, Belle’s Parkour offers thrills on a par with last year’s “Ong-Bak,” while Raffaelli is more of an aggressive street fighter lacking the natural grace and creativity of a Jet Li or Tony Jaa. Together, they create something quite innovative, whether the two heroes are fighting each other or combining their skills to fight a behemoth simply referred to as “Yeti.”
Pierre Morel wears his director of photography resume on his sleeve, filling the film with the type of elaborate camera shots we’ve seen in his previous films like “The Transporter” and “Unleashed,” beginning with the impressive title credits that uses a single camera shot to survey every room of the building in the opening sequence, spending a few millisecond with each character. Morel’s background is especially fruitful in capturing the action sequences with the same flair as some of Besson’s best. Like “Unleashed,” the soundtrack is key to the exciting action scenes, driving it forward with high-paced techno that would be more than welcome in the hippest of clubs and iPods.
Quality writing and acting rarely play a large part in this type of movie, but even so, they’re not on par with Besson’s previous flicks. Jason Statham doppelganger Cyril Raffaelli is a lot more comfortable in front of the camera, especially in his fight scenes, but David Belle only seems comfortable when he’s running or jumping. When they have dialogue, particularly with each other, their inexperience as actors becomes obvious, and yet, it somehow creates the type of uncomfortable chemistry that makes this type of action pairing work. Just imagine a young Arnold Schwarzenegger starring opposite a young Sylvester Stallone to get some idea of the caliber of acting we’re talking about here.
Dany Verissimo, a newcomer if you ignore her adult film work, gives a feisty performance as Lola, very much like Audrey Tautou on PCP as she attacks a leering gangster by stuffing her underwear in his mouth. Clearly, the best performance comes from Bibi Naceri as the drug kingpin who owes more to Pacino’s “Scarface” than the typical Besson baddie, even having a desk piled high with cocaine. He plays the part so outrageously that you can’t help but love the character.
The Bottom Line:
As much as the movie is lacking in the writing and acting departments, the well-executed action scenes, mixing martial arts and Parkour, will be more than enough to sate even the most finicky of action fans. Belle and Rafaelli show so much promise that most people who see this will want to see them do another movie together.