Thursday, March 23, 2006

District 13 (Banlieue 13)

It's errorneous to interpret "A Film By Luc Besson" that the marketing folks slap on the movie posters these days. Besson has of late been lending his name for that purpose on many movies, but nope, he's not the director. Usually involved in another capacity, like writer, or producer.

District 13 is one such movie. This is not a film by Luc Besson, although it is written by, and produced by him. This movie is directed by Pierre Morel, who was the cinematographer for another Besson-involved film, Jet Li's Unleashed. You'll see some familiar stylistic elements from Unleashed in this movie, although this one was made in 2004, and shown here earlier as the movie used to launch Cathay's new halls 10-12 at cineleisure.

Set in Paris 2010, troubled districts get walled in by the authorities. Literally. And District 13 is one of the most notorious amongst all. We get introduced to Leito first, a resident of District 13, but as it turns out, despite his mean tattoo covered demeanour, he has a heart of gold, and fantastic springs for legs, borrowed from the Yamakasi folks. Played by David Belle, he actually is a co-founder of a sport known as Parkour, which is demonstrated in the movie as a very free form of martial arts cross bred with the Yamakasi spirit. Leito is a character who's jaded by authority-like figures, as he gets betrayed by the police, and has his sister given up as collateral.

The other protagonist is Damien, an ace undercover cop, played by stuntman Cyril Raffaelli. Accomplishing his latest mission doesn't buy him rest, as he gets thrust unwillingly into a new assignment of having to locate a neutron bomb stolen and brought into District 13. Given only 24 hours before the bomb explodes and kills everyone in an eight kilometer radius, he has to enlist the help of Leito to serve as a guide inside the notorious district.

As you would already expect, it's reluctant hero meeting another reluctant hero, both with huge egos and their own agendas - one to save lives, the other to save his sister. Both share a common enemy, so that makes it easier somewhat to find common ground to cooperate. However, the movie's a tad short to explore these buddy themes, as you get into the action thick and fast.

It's adrenalin pumping action against an edgy hard hitting soundtrack. You'll initially be wowed at Leito's Parkour scenes, which brings back some memories of Jackie Chan movies with his acrobatic maneuvers into confined spaces, and of leaping from building to building, window ledge to window ledge, and rooftop to rooftop. However, after a while, you tend to get jaded because it's basically the same thing, repeated over and over again. The initial novelty wore out, and it didn't help that action scenes thereafter relied on the same techniques. Other than that, you're stuck with the usual fist-fights that have already been the hallmark of Hong Kong action movies.

Also, despite being billed as a non-stop action flick, the action actually pauses for long moments to force a discussion on the ridding of the downtrodden, of taking extreme measures to round up troubled districts by physically segregating them from the rest using high walls and barbed wires. and of extreme methods of getting rid of such folks deemed as troublemakers.

There're also more style-than-substance scenes, not that I'm complaining, but some shots were pretty to look at, at the expense of the story. As with most action movies, you'll also have to suspend belief that while bullets can make nasty holes in metal, they will never find a way to penetrate wood or human flesh, at least when the heroes are concerned.

While the ending's pretty neat, you can't help but wonder that this movie is yet another victim of the cool trailer syndrome - having almost all the best bits of the movie condensed into the trailer, leaving nothing much in the movie itself.

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