Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Video Pick of the Week: District B13

District B13 is a feverish, frenetic action blast set to a pulsating techno beat. It is a film whose sole purpose is to send a shockwave through the audience, to take viewers on a kinetic ride and leave them with adrenaline oozing out of their eyeballs. It succeeds in every way, on every level. I'm still shaking off the adrenaline rush. Here is a visceral cartoon of a movie, and I mean that in the best way possible; these characters run up walls, swing around buildings, jump through tiny window openings, and shoot at one another incessantly, yet they emerge with a keen sense of humor and their uber-cool left intact. This is one of the most creative and entertaining action films in a long time.

The film, known as Banlieue 13 ("Barrio 13") in its native France, is the brainchild of Luc Besson, the French action giant who has been moderately successful in the United States with such films as Leon The Professional and The Fifth Element, but who, back in his home country, delivers his best screenplay in years. And this isn't even a "screenplay movie" -- there is nothing revolutionary about the film's plot details, which are labyrinthine in a throwaway manner, or its structure, which is exceedingly simple. District B13 is not a movie about story or even a movie about words. Sure, the film is in French, and sure, there are a slew of English subtitles, but dialogue is not the film's primary mode of communication -- this movie speaks in a language of blood-pumping action, and its dialect is the hardcore thump of techno-club beats. We all get the message.

In "futuristic" 2010 France, one run-down, crime-infested barrio is taken over by government officials and is turned into a police state. B13 is isolated from the rest of the country, with giant walls encasing the city and armed guards protecting its borders. Schools have been shut down and law enforcement is all but obsolete; B13 lies in chaotic ruins, a crime haven to end all crime havens. Leito (David Belle) became fed up with the destruction of his city a long time ago, and found work in the only way he could: as a drug-runner for a seedy crime boss named Taha (Bibi Naceri, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Besson). As the movie begins, Leito has a plan. He wants to expose Taha and topple his operation, thereby restoring a modicum of peace to the home he loves. Of course, it's not that easy. Taha's men kidnap Leito's sister, Lola (Dany Verissimo) and drug her up real bad, and instead of sending Taha to jail, Leito is arrested for possession of narcotics. So much for his noble plan.

Six months pass. An experimental bomb with the potential to kill an entire city mysteriously finds its way to B13. Government officials send dogged undercover cop Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) to diffuse the bomb before it destroys B13 forever, but he needs a knowledgeable partner to help him navigate the seedy underworld. Enter Leito, who knows the ins and outs of Taha's syndicate, and for whom there may just be an added bonus to this scenario: diffuse the bomb, end Taha's reign, and save Lola's life.

District B13 takes on the standard aspects of a buddy movie, but adds its own iconoclastic flair to give labored material vibrant new life. The film is stacked wall-to-wall with some of the most viscerally exciting action sequences ever filmed. If the movie is a tightrope, its characters are brutish acrobats who glide across the rope without breaking a sweat and who possess such astounding physical prowess they may as well be flying through the air (and sometimes it seems like they are). Is any of it believable in the slightest? Of course not, and why should it be? This film is a high-octane fairy tale, a looney tune on vicious steroids. We are more than entertained by watching Leito and Damien kick ass after ass; we become vicarious participants. This is the kind of movie that makes even the most tranquil intellectuals punch the air and do somersaults on the floor.

Credit for this extravaganza obviously would go in equal parts to Besson, whose script places us in a delirious world and never lets up, and to director Pierre Morel, whose style is impeccable but who never lets his action become overwhelmed by his camerawork. There are countless slam-bang action sequences in the film, to be sure, but Morel works in a gritty style that vividly renders this dizzying world but never upstages it. He is a brash visualist, but not an arrogant one. In the same way, District B13 is short, sweet, and in-your-face, without any lofty goals or serious undercurrents. It is, dazzlingly and gloriously, all action and no pretense.

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