The phenomenon of parkour, of moving quickly and gracefully through urban landscapes, was a natural fit for the cinema. Somewhere between dance and martial arts, parkour is as fun to watch as to do. And the first, best feature film to capitalize on the craze was Banlieu 13, or in the U.S., District B-13.
B-13 developed a cult following in the U.S., and the inevitable sequel, called District 13: Ultimatum, finally opens in Denver this week.
Across the Rooftops of Paris
In the first film, Damien and Leito (Cyril Rafaelli and David Belle) were antagonists — a cop and a street tough — who finally joined forces for the sake of the community. In this film, they are friends and brothers-in-arms against the police state that Paris has become in the near future.
The evildoers in this case are a secret police organization called DISS who are in cahoots with an American company called “Harriburton” that profits from government contracts to rebuild ruined slums. A DISS agent named Gassman (Daniel Duval) gets the President’s ear, and secretly pulls his strings in response to an orchestrated Gulf-of-Tonkin type incident.
DISS makes a few mistakes. Their first is to be caught on video, which they think they can cover up with some carefully timed arrests. But their biggest mistake is to try to take Damien — that darned heroically honest cop — out of the picture. When Damien is thrown into jail on trumped up charges, Leito runs to his rescue.
Now suspicious of the authorities who arrested Damien, they discover a nefarious plot to destroy the housing projects in banlieu 13, whether or not the inhabitants have evacuated. The plot leads our graceful heroes through surprisingly clean, spacious, and well-lit ducts; down the sides of balconies and buildings; and across the rooftops of Paris. The brisk film is peppered with well choreographed fistfights and graceful and surprising stunts. There is even a car stunt or two. My only complaint is that I wish there were more.
Plot or Action
Maybe the most satisfying set piece is the first one, a gang bust at a strip club in which Damien captures one drug dealer after another, dressed as a veiled stripper with a little sliver of suggestive plumber’s crack showing. There’s a clever bit about a genuine Van Gogh, and another about a dealer so coked up that he can’t be knocked out.
But there’s a problem when the strongest scene in a parkour movie is one in which the writing is more entertaining than the action. And the writing (by Luc Besson) isn’t very good at the film’s end. It’s embarrassingly naÃ¯ve: the toughest gang leaders in banlieu 13 — a perfectly diverse cross-section of minorities — stand in front of the French president (Philippe Torreton) and demand respect. It might have been palatable had not the politician had a sudden, happy change of heart.
Then again, maybe the French could use a positive message about minorities in the suburbs of Paris for a change.