"District B13"‘s characters are as developed as a damp Polaroid. The film simplifies and makes kind of goofy the very real problems of Paris’ poverty- and crime-ridden banlieus. The plot exists to string us between various scenes showcasing parkour, the sport of "free running" founded by David Belle (one of the film’s stars) and familiar from any of a variety of stylish commercials on a television near you.
It’s great. We’d see it again in a heartbeat.
"District B13" is Euro action by way of "Ong Bak" â€” its stars, Belle and professional stuntman Cyril Raffaelli, perform all chases, fights, and improbable bounding around concrete apartment blocks in Romania (standing in for France with, according to the press notes, cheaper insurance) themselves, perfectly assured that acting, dialogue, and other developments always come second to making audience members clutch each other in fannish bliss and proclaim: "Oh, that was so cool."
Belle plays LeÃ¯to, a sort of benevolent gang leader who has managed to keep his apartment block an oasis of safety in the otherwise dystopic neighborhood of the title. It’s 2010, and the banlieus have gotten so bad that the city has walled them off and placed armed guards outside. The police and other public services are pulling out, and violence and chaos reign. When LeÃ¯to attempts to turn local drug kingpin Taha (Bibi Naceri) over to the cops, they’d rather set Taha free (and allow him to make off with LeÃ¯to’s sister) than bother fighting back against his well-armed men. LeÃ¯to piddles around in jail doing upside-down sit-ups until he’s recruited by Damien (Raffaelli), an idealistic officer, for an urgent mission â€” to retrieve a "clean" nuclear bomb that’s somehow been stolen and ended up in Taha’s possession.
Belle and Raffaelli aren’t the most charismatic of actors, but they’re not terrible either, and the cleverly choreographed action sequences soar, shot unfussily to highlight the spectacular feats of athleticism performed by the pair. LeÃ¯to, running from Taha’s men, uses the housing project setting like a personal playground; Damien infiltrates an underground gambling den and neatly takes out something like 35 men, leaving us wondering how necessary the whole "undercover" aspect of the operation was, but impressed regardless. Together, they leap over cars and fight someone named "YÃ©ti" and uncover a terrible cover-up and (spoilers) save Paris.
But the main charm of "District B13" comes from its unpretentious, stripped-down style â€” directed by first-timer Pierre Morel and shot on the relatively cheap (given the film’s scale), there’s a scruffy leanness to the picture, aided by minimal use of digital effects. Even the earnest emotional appeals, when they come, are kept nicely underplayed, thank God â€” no time for sniveling here, these are buildings to be leapt.
Opens June 2 in limited release.
+ "District B13" (Official site)