District 13 Review
With his directorial career on the wane – just two features in the past decade and neither a hit – Luc Besson has busied himself as writer and producer on a string of no-nonsense entertainments. Comic book movies offering colour, comedy, martial arts and ultra-violence in varying degrees, the likes of Unleashed, The Dancer and the Taxi and Transporter series have seen him escape the pretensions that blighted his genuine ‘auteur’ credits. In retrospect it would appear that Subway is now the most significant title in his directorial cv and that the cinéma du look never really went away. These recent genre offerings may be moderately budgeted and juvenile in their execution and outlook but at least they avoid the ponderous misplaced seriousness of The Last Battle and The Big Blue or the excesses that infected The Fifth Element and Gary Oldman’s performance in Léon.
District 13 fits into the current Besson mode perfectly. Unashamedly aimed at an adolescent fanbase, it substitutes social comment or satire for a techno/hip-hop soundtrack and an ever mounting body count. This is the kind of movie in which everyone’s a badass with a tough line in chit-chat, even the innocent little sister who serves as a minor plot point. Indeed, minor plot points are what District 13 is all about: made to cash in on the parkour or ‘free-running’ craze (the official website can be found at www.the freerunningmovie.com) it simply strings together a series of MacGuffins – drugs in a suitcase, a ‘clean’ bomb, political corruption – as a means of linking one stunning set piece to the next. Various “stars” of the scene appear throughout, with Tony D’Amario occupying the lead role, the selling point being that this is a “real” action movie, in the manner of Ong Bak, without the need for or reliance on CG enhancement or wirework. There are occasional embellishments to beef up the overall sheen of the film but the emphasis is on the “meat and potatoes” if you will. Meanwhile director Pierre Morel focuses more often than not on the pain of a stunt gone wrong or fetishes the more dazzling moments through repetitions and slo-mo; once again pointing out to the viewer that this is the real deal.
To provide the semblance of a narrative, District 13 relies heavily upon John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and LA movies. Set in the none-too-distant future, the Carpenter template is adhered to with its fenced-off community (the banlieue of the French title), urban desolation and outsider sent in to off-set a potentially explosive finale (quite literally). As you’d expect from Besson this dystopia also glistens: for all the run-down apartment blocks and poverty there’s also immaculate hairstyling and anything on four wheels is utterly pristine. Thanks to the breakneck pace, however, such banalities and the general derivative nature of District 13 never really gets in the way. Less than 90 minutes in length, this is a film that’s over before you know it. Perfect empty-headed rental material, in fact, and more than likely a great deal more entertaining than if Besson himself had gotten behind the camera.
Momentum clearly had hopes of District 13 attaining a cult DVD audience when putting together this particular disc. The picture quality is superb, offering up a pristine print in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and anamorphically enhanced. The colours pop, the clarity is excellent and there’s no reason whatsoever to grumble. Similarly the soundtrack is just fine in both its incarnations: original French or optional English dub. In either case we find a DD5.1 rendering that keeps the dialogue clear and puts most of its attentions on Da Octopusss’ [sic] seemingly continuous score. The dub itself is reasonably well done, though the French original is really the way to go. The only complaint is that the translation from Banlieue 13 to District 13 means that both subtitles and dub keep referring to “B13” as “D13” even when it’s plainly there onscreen.
Extras are similarly rich, no doubt as a means of further drawing in an audience. Alongside the expected outtakes (three minutes’ worth) and theatrical trailers (two French, one English) we find a lengthy 55-minute ‘making of’ and other documentaries besides. The ‘making of’ is surprising insofar as it lacks any input from Besson but otherwise pulls all the usual tricks: puff piece interviews, B-roll footage and an emphasis on action over concept, script or performance. Far too long for such superficial ramblings, it’s hardly worth sticking with for a single viewing, let alone repeated ones.
The other two featurettes focus on the parkour side of things. The first is a 35-minute with one of its star performers, Stéphane Vigroux, who also has a small part in District 13, whilst second is a more generalised piece, entitled Parkour Vision and running for seven minutes. Moderately intriguing, both are let down by the quasi-mystical edge which Vigroux and others place on their chosen sport. Just about acceptable in surfing documentaries detailing the sixties and seventies (such as Riding Giants) or John Milius’ Big Wednesday, here it just seems misplaced and ultimately proves infuriating. Perhaps those more inclined to extreme sports and the like will be kinder, but the casual viewer is likely to turn off.
Rounding off the package we also have a bunch of trailers for other Momentum releases. Note also that all three documentaries are in French in origin and come with optional English subtitling.