There will be no film cooler than DISTRICT B13 released between now and Labor Day, and by the end of this particular season, I would not be surprised if it doesn’t turn out to be THE coolest film of the summer. It starts at a fever pitch of rushing adrenalin and from there goes into the action stratosphere with some of the most inventive and just plain fun moves yet seen on the silver screen courtesy of European superstar David Belle and his L’art de Displacement, AKA parkour. More about that later.
The time is 2010 and the more unwholesome sections of Paris have been separated from the rest of the city by concrete barriers and razor wire, leaving the inhabitants, immigrants and the children of immigrants, ghettoized to prey on each other with wild abandon. There is one exception in this no-man’s-land of cheaply built high-rises and corrupt police, the high-rise occupied by Leito (Belle), who somehow manages to keep his building free of the omnipresent graffiti and the even more omnipresent thugs who elsewhere roam free. Unfortunately, Leito has crossed the local drug kingpin, Taha (co-writer Bibi Naceri) by confiscating a bale or so of his powdered product. In short order, Leito’s building has been stormed, his sister snatched, and he himself is tossed behind bars for trying to turn Taha in to the local constabulary. Like I said, it’s a tough neighborhood.
Quickly, though, things become even worse for Leito when he finds that he has to save his sister, disarm a neutron bomb, and clean up the district, not necessarily in that order. In the real world, no way, but in this universe, powered by direction from Pierre Morel that is so stylish that it exudes a sterling panache at every turn, well, maybe.
It means reluctantly teaming up with Damien (Cyril Rafaelli), whom Leito makes as a cop the minute he lays eyes on him being roughed up by some prison guards as part of his cover. Perhaps because Damien, like all the other government folk, is so overtly Caucasian. Not that partnering up with Damien is a bad thing, considering the way we have already seen him take out a nest of bad guys with little more than a few rounds of bullets and the ability to fly through the air with the greatest of ease on his way to delivering lethal blows to his properly awe-struck prey. But Leito has principles as rigid as Damien’s “liberté, egalité, and fraternité”, which include not trusting the cops again, though, as things turn out, the two have aworld view that is not that different.
The film would work as a showcase for Belle’s heart-stopping skills, but writers Luc Besson and Bibi Naseri have made this a crackling black comedy with mordant wit, unflinching social commentary, and a plot that’s knows how to have a good time. And much of that is watching Belle scamper through halls by banking off the walls six feet above the floor, over buildings, and then down them at what seems to be Mach 2 without ever breaking pace. He free-falls from rooftops, scales towers, and leaps over the very folk chasing him the way normal folk gambol through a flower-strewn meadow. And yet it is the smaller moments that are just as impressive. In one sequence, he squeezes himself into the front seat of an armored truck that is barreling along without brakes with one exquisitely fluid movement that smacks of both spontaneity of action and total control of a musculature as highly cultivated as a greenhouse full of orchids. Not that Rafaelli, who did the stunts for both TRANSPORTER flicks among others, is any slouch by comparison, whirling like a dervish and with the same commitment, though of a less spiritual nature.
DISTRICT B13 works on several levels. It’s a gritty fantasy flick with slick action, serious laughs, and deliciously larger-than-life baddies. It also addresses the simmering unrest in Paris that has erupted into riots that might be a foreshock of what is to come in other European capitols and extrapolates what reactionary right-wingers might do to take advantage of the situation. Either way, subtext or slug-fest, it’s darn near perfect.