Tuesday, April 6, 2021

District 13 (2004)

Sometimes when you watch a movie, you can be in the wrong mood for it. This usually spoils your enjoyment of the film, and can sometimes leave you with a negative opinion  This happened to me the first time I saw Banlieue 13. I saw it when I was somewhere I didn't want to be, and wasn't having a good time, and then on comes a low-quality shitty dub of some mid-2000s action movie, which I only half watched as I waited for time to pass. Definitely not an ideal set of circumstances. But then something unique happened. The resulting movie ended up being so good that not only did make me pay full attention as it flew by, not only did the shitty American dub nor the poor visual quality not spoil it, but it ultimately improved my mood, and I'd found a new favourite movie!

In the near future, the French government built a wall around the worst ghettos of Paris, creating the lawless mega-slum District 13. Here crime lords operate without opposition, except from Robin Hood figure Leito, a constant thorn in the side of the ruthless Taha. In an effort to flush him out, he kidnaps Leito's sister Lola, and after a tense chase, the hero is captured and imprisoned by the police. A short time later, undercover cop Damien is assigned a special mission-A nuclear bomb being transported through the area was stolen by Taha, and the crime lord unwittingly activated a 24 hour destruct timer. With precious little time, Damien must team up with Leito and save District 13, perhaps even Paris itself...

Banlieue 13 is a 2004 French action film, also known as District B13 (leading me to facetiously call it District District 13). Running at a short 80 minutes, it's a high-octane thrill ride that never lets up.

The highlight is of course the action. Starring and choreographed by David Belle, the founder of Parkour, aka freerunning, the movie is a brilliant showcase of the art. The characters move fluidly and effortlessly, darting across halls like cheetahs, climbing through windows like ferrets, and having what looks like an almost supernatural degree of movement, coupled with how they use the environment to their advantage. The fact that this was all accomplished without the aid of digital effects or wires makes it all the more impressive.

The plot here is simple in the best ways. It's not the deepest of stories, but it says everything it needs to and sets up important enough stakes, without having to become too convoluted. The action is also balanced well, never feeling like an endless string of setpieces, but having moments of downtime. This plus the short length mean we never get exhausted while watching. In fact the film moves by so briskly that it took me like 3 viewings to realise just how astonishingly little screentime Dany Verissimo actually has!

The social commentary here is effective, and it works precisely because the movie focuses on it so little. It doesn't try and write a big preachy sermon with every scene, and instead it just lets the location, characters, and events speak for themselves, with the occasional line to reinforce the overall themes. It's always nice to not have a film's message shoved down your throat, and it makes it so much/all the more stronger.

As for any problems, the movie's basic nature makes it pretty light on these. It's hard to have plot holes for example when your plot is so simple. There is one issue I have though, and many other people too. It's not something I'd go as far to say as being a problem, but just a personal preference, and that's the presence of the time skip partway through. The first twenty minutes is the introduction, first action setpiece, and Leito's sister is captured. Since it takes up so much time, it feels like the flow of the story is broken up a bit too much by pausing for six months   And there is of course Lola's perspective. If the events of this film took place entirely over a few days, she would be fine, but if she was a prisoner of ruthless gangsters for 6 months, that'd be really depressing! And in a way that the film doesn't really acknowledge either, as she's thankfully all smiles by the end.

Characters are an important part of such a breakneck movie, as without an engaging cast, we'd have little reason to care. There's nothing to worry about here, thankfully. Leito is a great lead, instantly likeable and badass. Damien is a noble policeman whose sense of duty can distract him at times. The villains are a colourful and well-developed bunch. And Lola is a well-rounded character, not idle even when taken hostage.

The acting here is all fine. The two leads (David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli are charismatic and agile, and look distinct from each-other. Bibi Naceri is great fun as the weaselly and psychotic villain, while Tony D'Amario also stands out as the hulking henchman K2. Dany Verissimo is a delight as Lola. Sexy and spunky, she's lots of fun, and I wish she could have done more. Ever since I first saw this I've had my eye on her as an actress, always eager to see her in more.

The direction by Pierre Morel is great, with the action scenes shot in dynamic and fast-paced [ways], without ever going too far and becoming a blurry or shaky mess with more edits than punches. The  complements the action perfectly. The soundtrack also aids these moments too, delivering a hip-hop-y ghetto feel that isn't normally my thing, but is very enjoyable here, getting you suitably pumped up.

District 13 is a highlight of the action genre, and one of the few modern day examples I can stomach. It's a modern [classic], and well worth a watch for  ...

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