Kicking French Ass

District B13 puts American action movies to shame

District B13

The Tivoli

Let's trade, action fans. Give up all 126 minutes of Mission: Impossible III's digitized bloat and torture games, along with Poseidon's more modest — yet somehow more numbing — 99 minutes in a computer-generated rain barrel. In exchange, you get roughly 1.7 seconds of a movie you've never heard of — a fast and furious thriller called District B13.

The hero, Leïto — a wiry do-gooder in a crime-ridden slum, who keeps watch over his little half-acre of hell — is hotfooting it through a tenement with a gang of cutthroat drug dealers on his heels. In a single effortless motion, in mid-stride, without even an eye-blink of a cut, he steps onto a radiator, catches an exposed pipe and swings upward toward a locked door. His body straight as a shot arrow, he sails feet-first through the foot-wide transom.

In this shot, which occupies less than two seconds of screen time, is all the wit, exhilaration and daredevil physicality that audiences crave from popcorn-movie spectacles, yet leave hungry. This is the cinema of Douglas Fairbanks, of the acrobatic silent comics, of Jet Li and Jackie Chan. And there's more, including the oh-shit moment less than a minute later when Leïto does an unfaked two-story leap off a rooftop — a gut punch of sheer vertigo that makes Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible skyscraper plunge look as scary as Dad cannonballing into the Holiday Inn pool.

But Cruise's movie is on thousands of screens across America, and DB13 — a French sci-fi actioner just getting a U.S. release, after wowing a midnight audience at last year's Toronto film festival — will be largely restricted to art houses, for the twin offenses of being French and not starring Tom Cruise. Spread the word: This delirious import is everything an unassuming genre picture should be — swift, funny, unpretentious, possessed of a feisty political subtext and primed at a moment's notice for megaton ass-kicking.

District B13 carries the signature of co-writer/producer Luc Besson, who's turning into a kind of Gallic Neal H. Moritz — a connoisseur of jet-propelled genius junk like the Transporter series and the amazing Thai skull-buster Ong-Bak. In presenter/producer mode, Besson is the sort of thrill junkie who cusses his Porsche because it doesn't have a tenth gear. At heart, District B13 is a fanboy mash-up of greatest hits from the oeuvre of John Carpenter — one of those quintessential American genre auteurs whom the French always seem to adopt early.

From Carpenter's Escape from New York, the movie pilfers its futuristic premise: An impoverished banlieue (suburb) of Paris has been walled and fortified in the year 2010 to keep the underclass safely imprisoned. From Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13, it borrows (along with its title) a class-conscious political skepticism that looks shockingly prescient after the rioting that rocked Paris' strife-torn banlieues last fall.

A massive "clean bomb" ends up behind the walls, in the hands of underworld ruler Taha (co-screenwriter Bibi Naceri). On orders from smug government functionaries, whose only concern is for those outside the walls, two men are sent in ostensibly to save the city: undercover cop Damien and vigilante Leïto, whose spunky sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) has become the druglord's junkie pet. Damien is played by Cyril Raffaelli, a bullet-headed bruiser in the Jason Statham mold. Leïto is played by David Belle, one of the masters of parkour — a French extreme sport/martial art devoted to the casual hurdling of physical obstacles, be they guard rails or 500-pound assassins.

It's the parkour — Belle's human-fly shimmying down skyscraper facades, his horizontal sprints across walls, and his leap-frogging across stairwells like a mortal Slinky — that makes District B13 an action-movie wet dream on par with Ong-Bak. Both movies feature genuine-risk stunts that carry the charge of actual human exertion and capability, not pixilated mayhem. But the playfulness of parkour gives the chases and fight scenes a musical lightness, heightened by a driving score of hot French hip-hop. The cutting is fast, but Hong Kong fast — the quick cuts favored by director Pierre Morel preserve rather than interrupt the arc of motion.

It's easy to overpraise District B13 because our own current action movies seem so stodgy and sadistic by comparison. The plot is mostly straight-to-video silliness, and Besson's no-cliché-left-behind storytelling becomes increasingly wearisome as the bomb's countdown nears zero. But there's a humor and Luddite concreteness to DB13 that keeps it engaging — along with a refreshingly unironic moral commitment on the part of its heroes, who take that "liberté, égalité, fraternité" stuff seriously.

That this satisfying action movie should be kept from its audience by bloated Hollywood competitors, with their eight-figure promotional budgets and stranglehold on the marketplace, is an injustice worth fighting. So take a page from the David Belle playbook when confronting an obstacle as monolithic as the inequities of American film distribution. Run straight toward it like a bat out of hell, clear its dead weight in a single sweep — and aim your feet at the sky.

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