action cinema has proved to be a bucket of decidedly mixed blessings.
Take Gérard Pirès' 1998 Taxi,
for example – the plot and characters are as gossamer-thin
as the most vacuous of Hollywood actioners, but those CGI-assisted
car chases were like nothing Tinseltown cinema was banging out at
the time. Not for long. Hollywood tends to keep its eye
on what's happening abroad, at least when it starts to make
money and attract an audience. Pretty soon the American
studios were soaking up the bits they saw as recyclable
and regurgitating them as The Fast and the Furious
and its ilk, and they even bought up the rights to Taxi
and released their own seriously crappy remake.
can't help thinking that somewhere in Hollywood, a witless
hack already has designs on a remake of District
13. In some respects this is only fair – Pierre
Morel's breezy, near-future actioner does its own share
of borrowing from both American and Hong Kong genre cinema.
Certainly it's as narratively shallow and its chief villain as
cartoonishly evil (engagingly played by the film's co-writer
Bibi Naceri, he shoots his own gang members simply for failing to come up with good ideas), but is also more oddly likable than
its US cousins and features some stunt work that rivals
the best of the current Hong Kong output.
in a near-future Paris of 2010 in a crime-plagued district
that has been walled off from the rest of the city, the
film speedily establishes the bad guys (violent, unpleasant-looking,
drug-dealing killers) and one of its good guys, Leito, who
is fighting a war on drugs from his tower-block apartment.
He's clearly getting on the tits of evil gang boss Taha, who get seriously pissed when Leito destroys a million
euros' worth of his drugs and gives his chief henchman K2 and his boys the
slip. K2 kidnaps Leito's sister
Lola, but Leito is one step ahead these goons and plucks her and Taha
straight from the gang's headquarters and makes a b-line
for one of the last remaining police stations in the area
(and even they are in the process of pulling out). Here it all
goes pear-shaped – Taha walks free with Lola in tow and
Leito's fury prompts an action that lands him in jail for
a long, long time.
months later and Leito is temporarily sidelined so that the film can focus on supercop Damien Tomaso, who is about
to spring a big surprise on the gang he has been working
undercover as a member of. After single-handedly defeating them, he is called in to see the chief for a special
assignment. An experimental fragmentation device developed
from the neutron bomb has been hijacked by Taha's boys and taken to a certain walled-off district of the city.
Damien is required to go in and disarm the device before
it explodes and kills everything within an eight kilometre radius, and as
he doesn't know his way around the area, they'll be teaming
him with a tough convict who does. Care to guess who?
the narrative arcs provide few real surprises, there is
just – and only just – enough variations on the familiar to
hold interest between the set-pieces. Central to this is the uneasy relationship between
the two leads, both of them stuntmen called on to perform
beyond the action and responsing with nicely (and unexpectedly) low-key performances.
As Leito, David Belle is particularly engaging, a first-time
lead for a man whose main claim to fame to date is as co-inventor
of the sport of parkour.
yes, parkour. For those of you who have caught none of the
sport's media coverage, parkour
was co-invented by Bell and his childhood
friend Sébastien Foucan and involves running through
urban landscapes and tackling any obstructions with
a mixture of climbing, leaping or vaulting, sometimes involving jumps of considerable
distance and at dangerous heights without safety equipment.
It requires the participant to be in peak physical condition
and to possess a strength and flexibility that Belle himself
has described as being "fluid like water." It
can be genuinely jaw-dropping to watch and most of us video
jockeys can only dream that we'd ever be that spectacularly
little doubt that co-writer and producer Luc Besson had
parkour and perhaps even Belle himself very much in mind
when he was putting this project together. There's always
a danger in attempting to build an action film around what
is essentially a gimmick, a you've-not-seen-this-in-a-movie-before
element that will also be used as part of the sales pitch. The teaming
of Belle with stunt co-ordinator and actor Cyril Raffaelli
at least sidesteps the eggs-in-a-basket problem of repeating
the same trick too many times in one film – Belle runs,
leaps and climbs, while Raffaelli brings down the bad guys
with some vicious kung-fu, and his victims hurl themselves
violently into and onto anything that will make you wince
when they make contact.
is, of course, what District 13 is really
all about. If I bemoan the state current Hollywood actioners,
it's partly because their overuse of CGI has nullified any
real sense of risk or danger that were once the raison
d'être of stunt-driven action set-pieces. Even
the physicality of Hong Kong cinema has been giving way
to wire work and CGI, hence the real excitement at the arrival
from Thailand, with its return to the genuine fight skills and acrobatics
of the genre's roots. District 13's smart
card is that, after an opening with enough whizz-through-the-object
CG trickery to make David Fincher groan at what he first
popularised, it goes the way of the Thai and does all its
stunts and falls for real. And yes, it does make a difference.
The early-on Parkour chase through a housing estate is a breathlessly paced show-stopper, and
scores precisely because what you are watching is clearly
for real. Nonetheless, the real skill of the performers and stunt team is sometimes undermined by director Pierre Morel's fondness for a style of machine-gun editing that breaks every stunt into a series of shots from a variety of
angles. It's a currently and infuriatingly popular technique that is both visually confusing and inaccurately gives the impression that the stunts were created in the edit, something the
rehearsal footage found elsewhere on the disc confirms was not the case.
if you can put up with this, then District 13 really delivers on physical action in the manner of old-school
martial arts cinema, where the director and stunt co-ordinator
use the human body to create a form of physical theatre, one
that has more in common with dance than Hollywood pyrotechnics.
And I do not use that analogy lightly – there is an extraordinary
grace to much of the work of the two leads, and it's
the almost throwaway stunts that are most likely to prompt
an instant rewind, as when Belle projects himself horizontally
through a (closed) transom window with just a few centimetres
of clearance, or the blink-and-you-miss-it moment when Raffaelli
glides feet-first through a car window into the passenger
seat with the sort of seemingly unforced ease that is the
very essence of Belle's "fluid like water" definition
borrowings from Escape From New York and
Scarface aside, District 13 is an action film that is more Hong Kong than Hollywood,
but still with enough of a national identity to distance it from both. Story and character-wise there are few surprises,
and there are enough plausibility and plot holes to prompt
cries of "oh come on!" from all but the most
uncritical genre fans, but on action it delivers well enough for you to forgive
a lot elsewhere. Most intriguing, perhaps, is the sociopolitical
aspect of walling off an
area of Paris in an effort to segregate part of the city.
Although seemingly a Carpenter-esque vision of a lawless
future, it is suggested in the cast interviews found elsewhere
on this DVD that although not yet given physical form with
bricks, mortar and barbed wire, there are certain areas of the city where such a barrier already exists.
2.35:1, the transfer looks as good as you'd expect for a modern mainstream
movie. Colours have obviously been treated to give District
13 exteriors a rather steely look, and the transfer appears
true to this decision. The detail level is very good, but
looks a tad enhanced at times.
5.1 soundtrack sports some fine surround work and an unsurprisingly
impressive dynamic range, though less LFE bass than you
might expect. There's also an English dub, which boasts
a variety of accents, with Damien a Londoner, Leito from
Ireland and Taha from somewhere in the USA.
small collection of Outtakes (2:54)
are quite fun for the usual reason of watching actors corpse
and props misbehave.
Making Of Documentary (54:46)
is a substantial piece that mixes interview with behind-the-scenes
footage to provide a detailed look at the preparation and
shooting of the film. The stunt preparation work and rehearsal
in particular is compelling stuff.
An Extended Scene (2:19) cover's
Damien's one-man battle with the gang shortly after his
entry into the story, and is not all that different to the
are three film-related trailers,
namely the French Theatrical (1:38),
the French Teaser (0:50) and the
UK Theatrical (1:57). The two
French trailers are subtitled in English. There are also
trailers for Supercross, Metal – A Headbanger's Journey, Samurai Commando,
Born to Fight
and Warrior King.
Stephane Vigroux Documentary
(35:13) is a production of London-based Parkour website
and media group Urban Freeflow, and spends a day training
with Parkour practitioner Stephane Vigroux.
Vision (6:59) is also by Urban Freeflow, and
punchier than the Vigroux docco. It also shows that Parkour
can be done anywhere, including down by the sea.
An enjoyable French actioner with a thin plot, identikit
characters but some seriously impressive athletics, fighting
and stunt work. The early-on Parkour chase is a particular
highlight, and the sequence I have most frequently re-run
and show to friends if I want to hear them go "Oh wow!"
Momentum's DVD delivers on picture, sound and extras, and
if action cinema is your thing then this is one you should
definitely check out – it's smartly done, and just different
enough from the current crop to develop a small cult following.