Pulsing with stunty and political energies, District B13 seems at once outrageous and immediate. The next step in producer Luc Besson’s ongoing quest to reinvigorate the action flick, it features tremendous tricks that thrill not only because they’re fast and smart and acutely choreographed, but also because they put real bodies at stake. That’s not to say that in this digital age such risk is the only or even the most effective way to engage viewers. But it does give the lie to the sort of Tom Cruisey “I do my own stunts” sort of self-promotion, and reminds you that stunts do often form their own narratives—bodies do tell stories as well as dialogue or plot.
In this case, the bodies perform an extreme sport called le parkour, usually associated with the banlieue, low-income “outskirts” of Paris (that is, the slums, inhabited largely by African and Arab immigrants and descendents). Participants race through city streets vaulting over obstacles (fences, cars, stairways), in a variant of “free running” that incorporates the urban location as the course to be negotiated. While flips aren’t typically part of the sport—as these elaborate on the environment rather than negotiate it—the film includes such ornamentation as dynamic pizzazz.
Set in Paris, 2010, District B13 sets up a conflict and set of interests that do, however unfortunately, reverberate immediately. The banlieue is here literally and emphatically walled off from the rest of the city, with the border patrolled by armed guards, so ghetto dwellers must sustain their own economy and chaotic hierarchy of power. Leïto (played by one of le parkour’s creators, David Belle), grew up in District B13, and at one time fully inhabited the thuggy expectations of his environment. Now he’s resisting, and first appears as he destroys a large haul of heroin, thus earning the wrath of kingpin Taha (co-screenwriter Bibi Naceri).
The first set-piece reveals Leïto’s considerable extreme sports skills: alternating between martial artsy throwdowns with Taha’s minions—in particular, the impressively looming K2 (Tony D’Amario)—and a speedy race through an apartment complexes deep stairwells and over rooftops. Leïto launches himself through precarious space with an awesome accuracy that looks like abandon, accompanied by a synthy dance-track and only occasionally underscored by distracting (though understandable) slow motion (the kicks and leaps are stunning, and so the deceleration allows appropriate audience gasping).
Leïto’s betrayal leads directly to K2 and Taha’s next move, kidnapping his punky-feisty sister Lola (Dany Verissimo). Though this provides her with some chance to show off her capacity for kicking and snarling (she’s especially nasty when it comes to avenging an irritating butt grab), it mostly sets up the rescue, during which Leïto yet again kicks some serious butt and sprints and vaults his way over a series of hurdles, this time with baby sis and their hostage Taha in tow. That he ends up briefly incarcerated due to a fearfully corrupt cop’s collusion with Taha only sets up the next step in the plot, which involves Leïto’s partner-to-be, an undercover cop named Damien (Cyril Raffaelli). (It’s worth noting there that, much like Besson’s other favorite action hero, Jet Li, these hard-bodied professional athletes are both low-key-charismatic on-screen presences, demonstrating—again—that the hiring of movie stars to pretend to perform stunts is an unnecessary compromise for the genre.)
Damien’s part in the action to come is initiated by some mucky-muck official, who sends him in, à la Snake Pliskin, to locate a “clean bomb” already triggered to explode in 23 hours. As this means the deaths of two million banlieue inhabitants, and Damien means to uphold the law and protect citizens even if they’re poverty-stricken, he agrees to the mission. He and also agrees to take Leïto as his guide. That Leïto is not initially aware of this plan entails a little actionated negotiation, but soon enough, it’s the gorgeous athletes versus Taha on one hand and the smug officials on the other.
First time director Pierre Morel keeps the dialogue to a minimum and action dialed high, which is precisely what’s called for here (one thugs’ lair includes a poster of Bruce Lee, so you don’t miss the point). He and cinematographer Manuel Teran make clever use of menacing wide angles, action-loving long shots, rousing zap pans, and ferocious zooms and lurches. While the editing gets a little hectic, at times distracting from the physical aerobatics, for the most part, the camera techniques keep focused on the brutal, much-fun Leïto-and-Damien show (Lola is kidnapped again and turned into an addict whom Taha literally keeps on a leash, so she spends most of the film waiting to be rescued). The boys argue and bond, take on any number of larger and better armed adversaries, and yet, they persist, scrappy and ingenious as the genre dictates.
Along with their lively exploits, District B13 also provides a rudimentary but resonant political frame, having to do not only with the race- and class-based uprising in France, but also with fears of border breaches (geographical and ideological) in the U.S. and elsewhere. When Damien lands inside the banlieue, crashing his truck into a building, he’s accosted immediately by an aptly angry property-protector who rejects Damien’s explanation that he “headed here for refuge.” “You took a wrong turn, laughs the man about to meet a terrible body blow. “This ain’t Monaco, it’s Baghdad.”
As Damien and Leïto keep their focus—finding Lola and stopping the bomb—they also develop a perspective, going so far as to compare what is essentially genocide against a population of poor, mostly non-white people to the holocaust. “You don’t kill two million people because you’re out of ideas,” Damien schools his opponent. “Six million died for not having blond hair and blue eyes.” While the capitalists do make the usual arguments in their defense, the action heroes keep the faith with the downtrodden. And yet the film maintains a healthy tension, as Damien believes in “the law” and Leïto is never convinced of its efficacy or good intentions.