[25 April 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
From the advertisement, you’d never know that Brick Mansions was a remake of the French parkour action film from a decade ago, District 13. You get the nod to Luc Besson and the obvious Paul Walker memorializing, but no mention of the previous movie, or that fact that star David Belle is on hand to repeat the role he made famous 10 years before. Now, this is a smart move on the part of distributor Relativity Media. For one, fans of the original will walk in thinking they are getting something new, only to have the familiarity—and the fun—of Pierre Morel’s movie drag them right back to the edge of their seats. The uninitiated, who wouldn’t know District 13 or its building jumping skill set from an ODB track, can sit back and enjoy a thoroughly competent and well-made thriller with just enough novelty to warrant a visit to the Cineplex.
Set in a dystopian Detroit (which may or may not be an oxymoron), Walker plays Damien Collier. A decorated detective, he has made it his goal to take down the drug lord who runs Brick Mansions, Tremaine Alexander (RZA). Seems that our hero has a score to settle with the mobster, especially when you consider that the maniac killed his police Captain father. Hoping to infiltrate Tremaine’s inner circle, he constantly works in and around the walled-up section of the metropolis, a kind of holding cell for the most undesirable members of the Motor City populace. While the Mayor (Bruce Ramsey) promises to care for the underprivileged people living in the Mansions, somehow, a neutron bomb ends up behind the barricades. Of course, Collier is asked to go in and disarm it.
For help, he gets Mansions nice guy Lino Dupree (Belle) whose just been jailed for killing a crocked cop. Also, he’s guilty of stealing some dope from Tremaine, and the baddie has kidnapped his girlfriend (Catalina Denis) in hopes he will come out of hiding. With Damien’s help, Lino gets back into the Mansions and immediately confronts the Boss. Turns out, Tremaine has the explosive device jerryrigged to an old Russian rocket and is preparing to send it smack dab into the center of decent Detroit. So now it’s up to our duo to save the girl, stop the bomb, get even with Tremaine, and return to safety before their sometimes half-baked plan blows up - literally - in their face. Oh yeah…and there may be some nefarious business going on behind the scenes in the city government as well.
While nowhere near as good as its predecessor, Brick Mansions doesn’t dishonor the legacy of District 13 either. Transporter 3/Taken 2 editor Camille Delamarre is clearly from the Luc Besson school of action and yet he also avoids much of the shaky-cam crudeness that marks an EuropaCorp production. While parkour itself has gone from big screen novelty to full blown sport (with leagues and competitions all around the world), the basics of the genre remain intact. This means that Belle can show off his amazing skill set and still wow us with his acumen. It also means that, now, the gimmick of such stunt work doesn’t overpower the plotting. Instead, we get caught up in the quest, learn to like these one dimensional characters, and cheer when it looks like Tremaine will get his due. Then we get the twist, and things go from interesting to insane.
You see, Brick Mansions wants to have its stunt spectacle chaos served with a side order of social commentary. Indeed, we learn that Tremaine and his people aren’t bad, just stuck within the desperate morality the city of Detroit has determined for them. Like the situation in Escape from New York, the Mansions have been quarantined to keep the good citizens (read: rich and well off) safe and the riff raff contained. We get several such pronouncements throughout the brief 90 minute running time and each one rings both true and a bit false. You see, Tremaine and his people are indeed killers. They murder for money and control of the streets. Excusing it by arguing that they are being forced into such situations is illogical. They do it because they can and they want to.
In Lino’s case, there’s no real reason for him to be so belligerent. Yes, he does want the bad element out of the Mansions, but stealing from Tremaine only ups the body count. Also, it’s clear the cop he kills is corrupt, so when he’s forced to pay for his crime, it makes the city look all the more suspicious. Indeed, the so called people in power often come across as one mustache twirl away from villainy, while the bad guy posse is supposedly made up of aggressive it misunderstood nobles, there is nothing within the context of the film itself to suggest this. Apparently, all that has to happen is the destruction of the Mansion’s containment wall and henchmen turn into heroes.
Of course, no one is going to care about sloppy subtext in a film like this. All they want are lots of action and moviemaking money shots. Luckily, there is enough heart-stopping stunts to keep your inner adrenaline junkie happy, along with moments that remind you of Walker’s route to such a melancholy end. Either on purpose or by osmosis, there are several scenes where the late Fast and Furious star sits behind the wheel of a jacked up muscle car and speeds down the road at unfathomable velocity. Such familiarity may breed a bit of contempt, but it also adds to our enjoyment. It’s like watching a favorite face revisit his humble beginnings, if just for a moment. The same thing applies to Belle, though he is truly back to where he started from. A bit thicker than he was in District 13, he can still baffle a moviegoer with his over the top (and through the window) dynamic.
In the end, what we get is a solid B-picture. It’s not going to win any awards, nor is it going to redefine the genre. Instead, Brick Mansions sets out to entertain and then manages such a motive with relative ease. If you loved the original, there’s no need to revisit it here. If you have no idea what’s being discussed, just shut your brain off and enjoy.