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Fluid, like water
A region 2 DVD review of DISTRICT 13 / BANLIEUE 13 by Slarek
 

French 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.

I 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.

Set 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.

Six 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?

If 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.

As 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 athletic.

There's 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.

Which 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 of Ong-Bak 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.

But 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 of parkour.

Superficial 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.

sound and vision

Anamorphic 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.

The 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.

extra features

A small collection of Outtakes (2:54) are quite fun for the usual reason of watching actors corpse and props misbehave.

The 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 final cut.

There 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.

The 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.

Parkour 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.

summary

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.

District 13
Banlieue 13

France 2004
83 mins
director
Pierre Morel
starring
Cyril Raffaelli
David Belle
Tony D'Amario
Bibi Naceri
Dany Verissimo

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
French
English
subtitles
English
extras
Outtakes
Making-of documentary
Extended scene
Trailers
Stephane Vigroux Documentary
Parkour Vision featurette
distributor
Momentum
release date
9 October 2006
review posted
12 October 2006

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