This week we find ourselves in the hands of a man with little grip on the true art of action films. He finds the decorum of this weekly column quite peculiar: walls splattered in blood, constant chaos, the occasional use of phrases like “tits awesome.” But he persists, and attempts to find solace through a French action film. He attempts to find solace in…Mindless Action Mondays.
District B13 (2004)
Plot: In the distant, dystopian future of 2010, the French government has sectioned off certain neighborhoods of Paris (read: Payur-ee) that are too poor to care about. Gang lord Taha and his lackey K2 are remiss to learn that Leito (David Belle) has caused problems for them in the form of stolen cocaine, which sets off several chase sequences. Then, in another story line, law-abiding policeman/badass Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) does awesome stuff that leads to chase sequences and shootouts. Eventually, the two pair up to stop a bomb in District 13, a particularly bad part of Paris, which leads to several chases and shootouts.
Now you may be asking yourself, with all this potential for deep, theoretical analyses and gender relations, where does the mindless action come in? Well, luckily, action sequences show up often and with fairly solid choreography. David Belle, who plays one of the main two guys, is known as the founder of parkour (sort of like street gymnastics), which means that the chase sequences are impressive to watch and done without CGI or wires.
The result is pretty damn cool, and the shootouts similarly have a hectic yet graceful nature to them. The only real complaint with the action sequences is that the camera will jump from place to place a lot, so half the time we have no idea where the hell people are in relation to each other or the city in general. But if you’re able to get sucked into the people jumping across rooftops and through tiny spaces, then this qualm is easy to forget.
The script and story are bare bones, in that they are there to get us from action scene to action scene. Still, District B13 manages to make the story engaging enough, and the characters interesting enough, for the action scenes to actually be interesting. My biggest complaint with action movies is that half the time I don’t care about the characters enough to have any vested interest in the chase. But Taha, K2, Leito, and Damien are all distinct enough to make the 90 minute runtime not drag on as my brain waits until it can turn back on.
For all the interesting characters, though, the structure is a bit baffling. The first third of the movie focuses on Leito, Taha, K2, and Leito’s sister Lola. Then, without any indication other than a “Six Months Later” title card, we follow a whole bunch of new characters for the next half hour. We aren’t told at all how the stories are related, and we don’t see a familiar face until the last half hour, which is the real story of the movie. Surely a script rewrite or some solid story-minded editing could’ve clarified all this?
There’s also some trouble for those that want to think about what’s going on in-between the lines of the movie (which, to be fair, is probably a fairly small part of the target audience). The movie does try to have some sort of moral statement, in that there is an attempt to criticize the way governments handle poor neighborhoods. But the issue is that when the writers try to make things complex, they forget what their own movie is about.
For example, Damien claims that there are ways to solve problems democratically, without violence. This is fairly ironic because he has just spent over an hour fighting and shooting people to solve problems. He also tries to beat the hell out of Leito for providing evidence that maybe Damien needs to think about his actions. If the screenwriters want to make some social commentary, then that’s fine; but they shouldn’t stuff loaded lines into the mouths of characters who have no right or reason to say them.
Moreover, there is exactly one female character in this movie. She’s pretty badass, if misguided (that picture is her shoving her panties into a creepy guy’s mouth in order to…prove a point, or something?), at the beginning, but then she is promptly given away by the police as a bargaining chip to the gang lord Taha. From that point on, she is coked out and tied to a chain. She’s purely used to drive Leito’s actions. As much as I tried to overlook any kind of gender issues in this movie, District B13 did a good job of making the bias towards characters based on sex really, really apparent.
Overall, District B13 is a damn good action movie that’s a whole lot of fun. The fun is probably directly proportional to how little you care about theme and character nuance. But the writer, Luc Besson (Leon: The Professional, The Fifth Element) and director, Pierre Morel, deserve a whole lot of credit for making something that’s really fun to watch and is a step above most action movies in terms of interesting characters and unique sequences. This is not a very complex film, and one with unfortunate submission to laziness, but overall the product is exactly what it’s meant to be: people jumping around cities with some talking in between.
Come back next week for your regular fill of Mindless Action, and tune in tomorrow for a special edition of The Tuesday Zone.