Director: Pierre Morel
Writers: Luc Besson, Bibi Naceri
I first watched District B13 or Banlieue 13 over a year ago, and when the France on Film Blogathon, hosted by Serendipitous Anachronism came up, I remembered how amazed I had been by the first fifteen minutes of the film and wanted to share it with you. As I re-watched this time, I was just as impressed by the action sequences of the film. Since I am not an action pic kind of girl, this is quite an achievement.
I’m apparently not the only one who was impressed. Time Magazine apparently named it one of the Top 10 Films of the Year in 2006. (I couldn’t read the Time article–well, I didn’t because I object on principle to being forced to register to read an article.) I’m not sure it was that good, but it was stunning and did inspire an American remake, Brick Mansions, and a sequel, District B13: Ultimatum. Both films star David Belle, the star of the original; however, unlike the original, Brick Mansions received almost unanimously negative reviews.
On to the District! The plot is rather simple. In a dystopian near future (2010, the past now), the most crime-ridden banlieues or suburbs of Paris have been walled off from the city proper, creating ghettos. One of these is District B13. As the opening credits roll, a montage establishes just how horrible conditions in the District are, featuring scenes of abject poverty, drug use, and crime. The camera finally comes to rest on the mountainous K2 (Tony D’Amario), enforcer for the local crime boss Taha (Bibi Naceri) and his friend about to pay a visit on Leïto (David Belle). Leïto, it appears has stolen a massive haul of drugs from Taha and is washing them down the drain as K2 waits for his fellow thugs to arrive. I never knew why Leïto stole the drugs; I wanted to think he was trying to weaken the syndicate’s control or just keep the drugs from his part of the neighborhood, but if the film tells, it was lost in the subtitles.
As soon as K2’s fellow toughs arrive, the action begins. Taha wants Leïto taken alive, and there are far too many thugs for Leïto to escape…Or are there? Well, Leïto is not easily cornered because he is a practitioner of parkour. And so begins the most exciting three minutes of chase scene ever filmed. I sat enthralled as Leïto vaulted through hallways, lauched himself over rooftops, sailed through windows, bringing to mind the dancing of Gene Kelly or Mikhail Baryshnikov. (Think the 1985 film White Nights on adrenaline and maybe some of those drugs Leïto was washing down the drain.) The sequence was not merely thrilling; it was beautiful and artistic. There was no manipulation of these scenes, and Belle and his fellow Yamakasi did all of the work themselves. No stunt doubles in this picture!
For those of you (like me) unfamiliar with parkour, it is a non-combative martial art developed by the French military “primarily by Raymond Belle, and further by his son David Belle” (Wikipedia). Yes, you did recognize that name; Belle is the action star of the film, so it is no coincidence that the action sequences are so stunning. Parkour is all about moving from one place to another, overcoming obstacles, “without assistive equipment and in the fastest and most efficient way possible”(Wikipedia).
The plot proper actually begins after this scene, but I will confess that everything is a bit of a letdown after this mesmerizing scene. In order to get even with Leïto, Taha kidnaps Leïto’s sister Lola (Dany Verissimo). Leïto rather easily gets her back and even manages to take Taha to the police. What he does not know is that the police are abandoning B13 completely. When Leïto arrives, he is jailed, and Taha goes free taking Lola with him. In his rage, Leïto kills a police officer, which is why we find him in prison when the picture takes back up the action six months later.
This final stage of the film introduces the audience to undercover police officer Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli). Damien and Leïto eventually end up working together to save B13 from a bomb which Taha has stolen. Leïto is willing to help, but insists on rescuing Lola, who has been turned into a junkie by Taha in retribution for Leïto’s interference with the earlier drug deal. As it turns out, the “disarm code” the government wants Damien to enter will actually arm the bomb and destroy much of the district, ridding Paris of a disturbing problem. Leïto figures out what is happening, and mostly saves the day.
This movie really could have been set anywhere, and actually was filmed in Romania. There are no familiar Parisian landmarks, but that’s not really what Disctict B13 aims to show viewers about Paris. Released late in 2004 in France (2006 in the US), its sense of class stratification and social unrest was eerily prescient, foreshadowing the 2005 French Riots. It did not escape my notice that the majority of the inhabitants of B13 were young and appeared to be of a variety of undefined ethnicities, reflecting the authority’s fear of not just the poor, but of the influx of migrants, as well as their desire to hide and ignore a problem rather than deal with it.
Overall, I recommend this picture. Even though it is not in a genre I typically enjoy, I appreciated the film. I saw comparisons to Bruce Lee movies and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, neither of which I liked at all. District B13 immediately captured my interest in a way those other movies never did. Furthermore, I appreciated that District B13 offered hope: Corruption was exposed, and former adversaries form a mutual respect which foreshadows greater cooperation in the city.