A few years back at a con, I bought a copy of the French car chase movie, Taxi on a whim. I’d heard some vague rumblings that the French were making some really exciting action movies that fell into a category called Ghetto Movies. I’m still not sure if that’s a title that’s actually applied to topical, serious stuff like La Haine rather than this exploitative low-budget stuff. Regardless, I see what they’re getting at when they apply that label to these movies. Movies like District 13 and Taxi have the same sort of style that you might expect from something produced here like Never Die Alone or Get Rich Or Die Trying. These are movies made with the hip-hop aesthetic in mind. The cars, the clothes, the attitude. They’re still very accessible to anyone who can tolerate subtitles, though, and original enough to sidestep their shitty plots.
District B13, originally titled Banlieu 13, is lucky to have the action it does because it’s a near plagiarism of both Escape From New York and Assault on Precinct 13. It makes me wonder what John Carpenter thinks of this, if he even knows about it. Though, this one isn’t as bad as Nid de Guêpes (aka The Hornet’s Nest) which is a complete rip off of Precinct 13 in nearly every way. District B13 has a lot going on that works to its advantage and warrants the sort of superlatives that I reserve for time tested classics. I’ve never seen an action movie like this. It is one of the most original stunt movies I’ve ever seen. It employs a form of urban acrobatics called Parkour (known as Free Running in the states) and is tons of fun. Read on.
In a near future Paris, the government has more or less given up on outlying districts of the city which have been overrun with crime. The police are helpless the stem the rampant crime and gang activity and their solution is to wall off the toughest districts, leaving the citizens to fend for themselves. The show begins with Leito, the local good guy, racing against the clock as he trashes a good deal of heroin which belongs with District 13’s resident crime lord, Taha. He manages to ruin it all seconds before Taha’s heavy, K2, and a few of his cronies storm Leito’s apartment building. What follows is a hyper-kinetic foot race through, off of and around Leito’s building as he narrowly escapes Taha’s men. In retaliation, Taha kidnaps Leito’s sister whom he manages to rescue as well as deliver Taha to the authorities who are in the last stages of pulling out of District 13. The corrupt cops are bought off at the last minute and Leito winds up in jail. Flash to another part of the city as Paris’ supercop, Damien infiltrates a busts one of the city’s top criminals. Flash forward again. Taha and his men manage to hijack a truck carrying a neutron bomb and use it tohold Paris hostage. Flash back to Damien. He is charged with the task of infiltrating District 13, with the help of Leito, and retrieving the bomb. What follows is a race against time to outrun Taha’s men and retrieve the bomb. But there’s a sinister twist in store for Leito and Damien.
Let’s just get this out of the way right now. District B13 is a dumb, dumb movie. If you came out for gripping suspense and masterful storytelling, you’re going to be let down. The plot takes a backseat to the action and is completely arbitrary. It’s almost as if it were made up on the spot. It’s surprising to know that Luc Besson was behind it. As a matter of fact, Besson has been behind many quick and dirty action movies over the last few years and from those that I’ve seen, they’re mostly winners.
District B13’s secret weapon, the thing that sets it apart from other cheapo flicks is parkour, which is easy to explain but difficult to properly convey why it’s so cool. In a nutshell, parkour is the art of jumping off stuff and looking really cool while doing so. That’s a gross understatement, though. People who partake of parkour, climb, run and jump in a gracefully death defying improvisation routine using the architecture around them. Look it up on Youtube and be amazed. District B13 is the first action movie I’ve seen that makes good use of it. Super stuntman, Cyril Rafaelli, who plays Damien and David Belle, who plays Leito and one of the founders of the parkour art are absolutely amazing and put on one of the most thrilling stunt spectacles that I’ve ever seen. There are some downright fantastic fight scenes here, but even those are secondary to the parkour stunts, all done without the use of wires or CGI. Given this context, several parkour scenes become that much more incredible and one minor scene where Leito and Damien outrun a speeding car and backflip over it as it crashes into the car they had just jumped off of. For a movie with such massive plot shortcomings, it’s so easy to overlook the places where it sucks and be drawn into the action entirely. As I see more and more CGI used to save the costs of actually destroying sets and props, it’s extremely refreshing to see a movie that does the stunts for real.
While every character is essentially paper thin, there are people you might even come to like. Taha is a flamboyant, bad ass villain who hangs out Tony Montana style with his nose buried in mountains of coke while he watches classic UFC fights. His gang, more a private army, hangs nearby in their barracks cleaning very exotic machine guns. Taha’s number two, K2, is also a likable idiot, despite being one of the big bad guys. His demeanor is cool and he also has his name shaved into the back of his head. What’s not to like about that? Everything else is styled in a European take on the hip-hop look. Everyone dresses the part and drives tricked out European sports cars.
I have yet to come across anyone who seen this movie apart from myself. The subtitles turn people off in a big way and most people have a hard time believing that thrilling, low-budget pap could come out of France, the country that gave us the French New Wave. I’ll most likely be talking up other French action movies in the near future since there are so many worth taking a look at. Prior to this, the unsung star of the French action world was Taxi, which plays out like those Getaway In Stockholm movies with a plot involving German bank robbers. The new king is District B13, though. I urge everyone reading this to make it a priority to check it out. It doesn’t look like much from the video store shelf, but inside is something unlike you’ve ever seen.