Wednesday, September 12, 2007

District B13 (2004)

District B13 (2004)

'District B13', or 'Banlieue 13' in its native French, is one of the most exhilarating and pure action movies I've seen in a long time, probably the best martial arts flick since 'Ong Bak'. I mention 'Ong Bak' simply because this film has the same insane level of incredible, unique, breathtaking action. 'District B13' isn't similar in terms of the type of action on screen, though - this one revolves around the 'parkour' style that has, subsequent to the film's release, found it's way into several Hollywood films.

Set in the near future, it tells the story of Leito (David Belle) and Police Captain Damien (Cyril Raffaelli). Leito is an inhabitant of a cordoned off, lawless ghetto area of Paris called B13. He's a decent guy trying to fight against organized crime, but in the film's opening act we see him betrayed by the police and locked up following an incredible chase sequence in and around an apartment complex. Captain Damien is an undercover cop who, like Leito, has superb fighting skills that he uses to bring down a criminal gang singlehandedly during his introduction sequence. When an armed nuclear warhead is stolen and taken to B13 by the resident crime-lord Taha (Bibi Naceri), Damien teams up with Leito to get into B13 and disarm it before it goes off - which will happen within 24 hours. Their secondary objective? Free Leito's sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) from Taha's clutches.

It's a slight but fun plot that serves to provide a framework for the 85 minute-long action fest. It's not vapid though, being an unsubtle representation of social inequality in France (this came out before the Paris riots) and the indifference shown towards poorer minority groups. The friction between Leito and Damien is also based on this social disparity, with each character representing their particular segment of society. Damien, and by extension the society he represents, is only guilty of naivety and ignorance about the situation in B13, with most of the blame being laid at the feet of an apathetic government that sees the ghetto as an ugly blemish. It's not deep stuff, and the characters are sketchy, but for the type of film it is, it's more than enough.

The real fun stuff is in the action sequences; the film is worth watching even without sound, because that's how visually engaging the action is. It's not the conventional martial arts that you'll see in a typical kung fu movie either, it's parkour. The impact of watching parkour in this film is not diminished at all by the fact that it has found its way to the mainstream. If anything this makes the Hollywood friendly parkour scenes look poor in comparison! There's heaps of dexterous leaping around, bouncing of walls, death defying jumps, and bone crunching kicks and punches to enjoy. David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli don't have much to do in terms of conventional acting, but as with most martial arts actors they make up for it in spades with their physical prowess.

'District B13' is an immensely entertaining action film that is unashamed of its genre. It's a thrill ride from start to finish with a layer of social commentary thrown in to give it that little bit of substance. Plus, it's unique enough in style to stick in your head well after the credits roll. A must see action film.

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