District 13 (Banlieue 13) Review
A French dictionary will tell you that "banlieue" means "suburb" but in everyday language it's come to mean "ghetto". The Paris banlieues hit the headlines last year when rioting erupted and hundreds of cars were set on fire. The premise of Luc Besson's new production, Banlieue 13, retitled District 13 for British release, is that social decay in these areas spirals so far out of control that the French government decides to wall the ghettos up. Tough on crime, tough on people unfortunate enough to live near crime.
In these condemned slums, the schools and hospitals have been closed, the police have pulled out and the residents, whether criminal or honest, have been left to fend for themselves. One of those residents is Leïto (David Belle), an angry young man who has watched his neighbourhood (B13) abandoned by the law and taken over by vicious crime boss Taha (Larbi Naceri). Taking justice into his own hands and standing up to the gangsters, Leïto ignites a chain of events that ends with him in jail and his sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) taken by Taha and turned into a drugged slave.
Fate hands him a second chance. When an army vehicle carrying a nuclear bomb is hijacked and ends up inside B13's walls, the authorities need a couple of tough, fearless men to go in and retrieve it quickly before Taha can sell the weapon or use it. Their first choice is Damien (Cyril Raffaelli), a square-jawed undercover cop, but they also need someone who knows B13 and understands Taha's operation. The only candidate is Leïto.
So the concept is Escape From New York with dashes of 48 Hrs, The Rock and "24" and a helping of timely social commentary. The execution however is pure Luc Besson. District 13 is a ferocious, eighty-five-minute burst of martial arts action spiced with offbeat humour and enough unexpected plot twists to keep your brain from going to sleep.
The pace of this movie has to be experienced to be believed. It opens at full tilt with two lengthy, virtuoso action set-pieces, one after another, and it doesn't let up till the credits roll. It's breathtaking, the level of energy this film sustains for nearly an hour and a half. There's not a dull moment and there isn't an ounce of fat on it. District 13 comes as a breath of fresh air in the midst of the over-inflated, two-and-a-half-hour blockbusters Hollywood's been churning out recently.
Non-stop, fast-paced action can be grating - remember Charlie's Angels? - but District 13 doesn't fall into that trap. It's not overwhelming and the mayhem never seems to be happening just for the sake of staging a chase or blowing something up. There's always a plot-driven reason for it.
The characters are filled out just enough to get us involved. The two leads (nicely played by sleepy-eyed David Belle and earnest Cyril Raffaelli) are as sympathetic as they are agile and the villains are loathesome in interesting ways. Colourful supporting characters (Tony D'Amario as Taha's hulking, blinged-up henchman, Nicolas Woirion as a pompous casino boss) provide amusement without getting in the way. This seems like basic stuff but it's amazing how many contemporary action films don't even trouble themselves to push these buttons.
The social message is timely while remaining vague enough that conservatives, liberals, libertarians and socialists can all claim it to be supporting their cause. I think we all agree that criminals are bad but that lumping poor people in with criminals is unfair. The twists towards the end probably have more to do with making the plot interesting than advancing a serious message. Best not to think about the ending too hard afterwards.
The action scenes are variations on what we've seen before in other Luc Besson movies - guns, cars and martial arts - but rarely has it been done so well. First time director Pierre Morel was the cinematographer on two of Besson's best productions, The Transporter and Unleashed, and he's learned and built on what he's learned. The result is the most fun I've had watching an action movie for ages. Don't let the subtitles put you off and try not to be distracted by the hype of other, bigger films. Go and see District 13 and remind yourself what action cinema should be like.