Friday, April 12, 2013

Gallic Smackdown: DISTRICT B13

The French aren't usually known for action movies. More often the words "French cinema" evoke long, talky scenes of love, existentialism, or family strife accompanied by lots of smoking and shrugging, topped off by one character's inscrutable decision leading to an ambiguous or depressing conclusion, often resulting in death. In other words, my kind of movie.

But 2004's District B13 is a bête of a different color. It actually kicks some serious ass--French, American and otherwise. Taking place in an Escape From New York-like dystopia where large chunks of Paris have been walled off to separate the criminal element from its Perrier-sipping overlords, it uses a familiar storyline (elite cop teams up with inner-city hoodlum to save the city) to showcase a series of intensely choreographed fight scenes and a then-new form of gymnastics called parkour.

You talkin' to moi?
Invented by the film's non-actor lead David Belle (the guy with the tattoos), parkour utilizes urban landscapes in place of rings and balance beams, with the city itself becoming a living Jungle Jim. It makes for high-adrenaline chase scenes suggesting real risk to life and limb--a rarity in this age of computer-generated effects (even if you'll some suspension of disbelief for the occasional dodged bullet). Such was parkour's impact that it was used two years later in Daniel Craig's first James Bond film, Casino Royale.

It's no surprise this movie was co-written and produced by Luc Besson, who's been pretty much the face of French action movies since directing the original La Femme Nikita and a young Natalie Portman in The Professional. He went on to make the batshit-crazy The Fifth Element and the more subdued (and underrated) Angel-A, and as a producer has turned out a steady stream of action flicks including the Transporter series. Besson does things Big, with a capital B, and District B13 is no exception. It's a gritty, punch-drunk comic book of a movie, at times ridiculous but always entertaining, and has surprisingly not been remade by Hollywood. (Scratch that. It turns out a belated remake starring Paul Walker is due later this year.)

There was a 2009 sequel, District B13: Ultimatum, that's also on Netflix and has the same male leads. I'm not sure about its quality, but if any of you have seen it, feel free to post your thoughts in the comments below.

Meanwhile, if you're curious to see what parkour is all about, take a look at the movie's official trailer. Anyone know how to say "wham-bam" in French?

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