2½ stars (out of four)
"District B13" is a ridiculous but exciting action movie set in Paris' gritty suburban projects.
The time is the near future, 2010, when conservative politicians have walled up the projects (or banlieues, hence the film's French title, "Banlieue 13"), Warsaw ghetto-style, to keep the scruffy residents away from chic middle-class Parisians. The story has a cop and an ex-con from that B13 breaching the barrier in common cause against drug czars, corrupt politicians and weapons of mass destruction.
The movie doesn't make a lick of sense, but it's done with such zest and skill--and such incredible stunt work and action choreography by co-stars Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle--that the absurdities don't sabotage it.
Then again, maybe the absurdities help it. Produced and co-written by action king Luc Besson, France's main Hollywood wannabe (the director of "La Femme Nikita" and "The Professional"), "B13" is set in a drug-ridden, crime-infested ghetto much like the one in Mathieu Kassovitz's more serious youth-crime drama "Hate." But this is sheer fantasy. Raffaelli and Belle play, respectively, an undercover cop named Damien and a B13 vigilante named Leito, who team up to battle cocaine-addict mobster Taha (Bibi Naceri). Bad-tempered Taha has stolen a massive bomb, triggered the countdown and may wind up blowing up millions of people unless the duo find and defuse it--at, of course, the last possible minute.
Leito has his own motivation. Taha, a crazy sadist fond of shooting his own employees if he's unhappy with their job performance, abducted Leito's sister Lola (played as a half-pint, shrieky fireball by Dany Verissimo) after Leito is sent to the slammer by crooked cops. In the time since, Evil Taha has turned Lola into a junkie and sexual pet, leading her around on a dog leash and eventually chaining her to the bomb.
With Besson, Naceri co-wrote this wild script, which is a hodge-podge of ideas and attitudes lifted from Jackie Chan, James Bond, Jet Li, Arnold Schwarzenegger and even Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, reset in the banlieue to a blasting French rap score. The projects remain a great locale for a film, even though these particular city ruins were shot in Romania, apparently a more hospitable action movie site than France. But director Pierre Morel, an ex-cinematographer, doesn't try to make anything remotely real.
The characters aren't real either, except for their on-screen physicality. Belle and Raffaelli are ex-stunt men possessed of prodigious skill and, apparently, nerves of ice. Like Chan, they do their own stunts, according to the press notes, mostly without nets or safety devices.
In a big chase scene early on, Belle jumps and somersaults from one rooftop to another, racing and leaping down staircases in a way that all but blows you out of your seat. (As he soars between roofs or jumps to the pavement a story below, you actually may fear for both his knees and his life.) That scene, and a three- or four-minute gun-blazing casino raid conducted by Raffaelli's Damien against another drug czar, are almost worth the price of the movie--and they almost make up for its senseless plot.
There is one memorable performance, by Tony D'Amario as K2, Taha's main henchman and, quite literally, the heavy. D'Amario is a huge guy, with a genial smile and K2 shaved on the back of his head. His cheerful sadism and mildly shocked reactions to Taha's blood-thirsty tantrums are sometimes shamefully amusing.
So are the action scenes. "District B13" has a political subtext: The conservative politicians who sealed off the banlieue have created the mess; they're the problem. No doubt that's true, but "District B13" has a logic-be-damned attitude that doesn't exactly encourage rigorous social analysis. It doesn't matter. Much of "B13's" youthful audience will get more turned on by the rap track (by Da. Octopusss) and the martial arts, by Leito's leaps and Damien's choppy-socky. And, even if the two stars aren't Jackie Chans, they can still kick this movie into high gear.
Directed by Pierre Morel; written by Luc Besson, Bibi Naceri; photographed by Manuel Teran; edited by Frederic Thoraval; production designed by Hugues Tissandier; original music by Da. Octopusss (Bastide Dony & Damien Roques); produced by Besson. A Magnolia Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:25. MPAA rating: R (for strong violence, some drug content and language).
Damien Cyril Raffaelli
Leito David Belle
K2 Tony D'Amario
Taha Bibi Naceri
Lola Dany Verissimo
Kruger Francois ChattotCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times