LOS ANGELES—Set in the near future, "District B13" presents a Paris that looks suspiciously like any present-day neighborhood where gangs call the shots. What sets it apart are the residents that leap powerfully and fluidly from balconies, scale walls and traverse rooftops.
These non-radioactive Spider-Men aren't defying gravity or wearing wires, but are practicing a movement discipline called "parkour," aka "free running." Co-founded by David Belle, parkour capitalizes on the power of forward momentum to overcome obstacles. And what better environment for obstacles -- both physical and mental -- are there than the city?
"The spirit is really close to martial arts," says Belle. "You have to start working on your physical condition and then let your instincts guide you."
Naturally, anything this hip that also tones muscles is popular with Hollywood tastemakers. Madonna reportedly learned the sport for portions of her "Confessions on a Dance Floor" Tour, and parkour co-founder Sebastien Foucan will play a play a fleet-footed terrorist in the latest 007 film "Casino Royale." Belle, who first started practicing parkour for personal reasons, never intended it to become a phenomenon.
"I did nothing, absolutely nothing. I started doing it because it was basically a way of connecting with my father, to watch him and be proud of him," he explains. "If you have seen 'Forrest Gump,' at one point he takes his shoes and decides to run, looks behind him and he has plenty of people behind him following him. But at the beginning, he was just running for himself."
This expression of autonomy is one of the underlying themes in "District B13" that drives the action. In the film, Paris officials have washed their hands of the titular district and have erected an isolation wall around the ghetto to contain the drug dealers, crime lords, illegal gamblers and other petty thieves.
The only problem is that everyday citizens like Leito (Belle) are trapped with all the others. When gang leader Taha (Larbi Naceri) kidnaps Leito's sister Lola (Dany Verissimo), he teams up with elite task force cop Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) to retrieve her and to defuse a bomb that has fallen into Taha's hands.
Raffaelli, a fight choreographer and stunt man who's taken on the likes of Jet Li, trained Belle for the scenes requiring martial arts or unusual stunts. In one chase scene, Leito evades capture in an apartment building and leaps feet-first through a small vent opening above a door without touching the sides.
"I brought up a door in the training gymnasium and put those elastic cords on top of it," recalls Raffaelli. "So he knew in advance that he could only be able to do it [like that] ... and I'd make the opening smaller and smaller. I kind of lied for the last two days. I totally made it much smaller than the real one. And as soon as I saw that David wasn't touching any of the elastic, I said, 'You're ready -- and by the way, it's bigger.'"
Raffaelli also gets into the action for his own fight sequences: taking down an illegal casino, hijacking a prisoner transport truck and grappling mano a mano with Belle on a rooftop. Even the experts get hurt though, and he once twisted his ankle landing incorrectly after jumping into a dark hole that doubles as secret passage in the film. Despite the injury, director Pierre Morel prefers using actual stuntmen as the leads because he believes audiences are tired of seeing faked or CG action.
"There's no cheating: There's no CG, green screen or wirework," says Morel. "It's real guys doing the real thing. This is something you don't see most of the time in today's big-budget action stuff here. The audience is not fooled anymore."
"District B13" will open in limited release on Friday, June 2.