May 25th, 2006
A ballistic French production from Luc Besson, “District 13” is a tightly made action film that does a terrific job giving the audience electrifying stunt set pieces. Short, to the point, and genuinely thrilling, the film does have moments of silliness, but the excitement rarely pauses.
In the year 2010, violence in Paris has risen to epidemic levels. The government’s solution is to wall off a notorious section of the city and place the worst of the worst in this ghetto, allowing them to run free without hurting the outside world. Now the criminals inside have stolen an armed nuclear missile, forcing the police to send in their best officer, Damien (Cyril Raffaelli, “Kiss of the Dragon”), and a trustworthy resident of the district, Leito (David Belle, “Femme Fatale”), to the rescue, utilizing their potent brand of martial arts to stop a criminal mastermind (Bibi Naceri, who also co-wrote the script) from launching the weapon at Paris.
“District B13” is another captivating fisticuffs production from the fertile mind of producer/writer Luc Besson (“Unleashed,” “Kiss of the Dragon,” “The Transporter”), who now seems determined to show the world that the French make the best action films around. And adding “District B13” to the list makes it incredibly difficult to disagree with him.
After supervising the international edit of the dazzling Tony Jaa actioner, “Ong-Bak,” it seems Besson has found a taste for the high-flying, fat-free form of violent cinema where sheer athletic spectacle replaces screenwriting obesity. Sticking closely to the “no wire work” policy of “Ong-Bak,” “District B13” introduces the world to Belle and his “Parkour” style of choreography, which uses freedom of movement to get from place to place as directly as possible. The opening 20 minutes of the film are basically a demonstration of the skill, featuring Belle smashing quietly through tiny windows, jumping fluidly from rooftop to rooftop, and generally running circles around the bad guys Road Runner-style. It’s striking footage, and sends the film off on an exhilarating note.
Raffaelli’s gifts are just as impressive, but he represents the more firearm-heavy section of the film, as Besson puts him in a mid-movie casino shootout that has Damien taking on endless goons with leaping kicks and double-fisted weapons. It’s in the film’s second half that the two actors team up to crack some skulls, and that’s where the movie kicks into overdrive with those giddy thrills that only threadbare action cinema like this can provide. Besson knows his audience, and no matter how silly “District B13” becomes, or how many times simple logic is tossed out the window, the film retains a core of delight simply because it has already convinced itself of its coolness, and all the audience has to do is marvel at the monumental stuntwork.
Director Pierre Morel (a protégé of Besson) directs the madness very cleanly. The film is straightforward and surprisingly brief (running 75 minutes), and Morel embraces the simplicity of the script, concentrating on big moments of action and smaller moments of character bonding. Like “Ong-Bak,” “District B13” has some uncomfortable moments when it resembles Van Damme table scraps from the mid 1990s, yet the energy of the film is breathtaking, and the sheer momentum of the direction and talent make up for any artistic drought. For genre fans looking for entertainment that doesn’t suffocate under its own weight, Luc Besson has served up another spry, sleek winner.
My rating: A-