When I reviewed Bloody Mallory, commenter Marc wrote, “While we’re on the subject of ‘silly French movies that are still a lot of fun to watch,’ permit me to recommend Banlieue 13.” A banlieue is basically a suburban area. So in the English speaking world, the film is known as District 13. It was released in 2004 and it stars two stunt men and a former female porn actor. I mention that as a compliment. First, it speaks well of the producers to cast such people. And watching it before I knew that, I had assumed they were all just regular actors — although with the men having training.
The two lead actors, David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli, are practitioners of Parkour (or close enough) — that seemingly gravity-defying style of running and jumping that isn’t that different from the wire work in The Matrix. There are two set pieces in the film with this: the first with just Belle and the second with both of them. These go along with such fast-paced editing (thanks, I assume, to director Pierre Morel) that it brought on actual motion sickness in me. I quickly got used to what was happening on the screen, and the nausea went away. But still, it was pretty intense. And it speaks well of a film that it can be that powerful — even if for a short period of time.
At this point, I suppose Parkour is a little tired. It was used in the 2006 version of Casino Royale. By the time something shows up in a James Bond film, it’s pretty much dead. But I still find it fascinating. It’s like watching an insect move. So I think the movie is worth watching just on that front.
District 13′s Plot
It’s also interesting if you look at it as an allegory of the Israel-Palestine conflict. That’s because the story is about how the power elite of Paris wall off District 13 because it is poor and filled with gangs and so on. Things just get worse as a result of that, where the people inside live in a kind of Mad Max work. And it is more and more of a political problem for the people outside. But I kind of doubt there was a great deal of thought given to this. The film is pretty clearly an homage to Escape From New York — although the substantial plot differences make it a far more interesting story.
The major problem with the District 13 is that when the action sequences aren’t taking place, the film is downright didactic. I don’t mean that it is trying to teach us how to be good human beings; I mean it is trying to teach us what the plot is. The writers Luc Besson (!) and Bibi Naceri didn’t take the time to show us what the action was about; they just tell us through dialog that is often unrelenting — particularly after Belle and Raffaelli team up.
All the same, it’s an enjoyable film. It skirts most of the action film cliches that are in every Hollywood blockbuster. A good example of this is that the hero must have some fateful confrontation with the alpha villain at the end. Not so here. Instead, the beta villain simply allows his gang to kill the alpha villain. And then it turns out that the beta villain is, all things considered, pretty reasonable (which we expected, largely to a great performance by Tony D’Amario). None of this should come as a surprise to fans of Luc Besson’s classic Léon: The Professional.
District 13 is certainly not a great film — or even an especially interesting one. But it’s entertaining. It’s story is far more compelling than most action films. And the action sequences themselves are as good as they get. If you’re interested in this kind of film, I don’t see how you can miss with it. And if it isn’t your kind of film, it’s far more bearable than most other action films.
I had mentioned in my review of Bloody Mallory that the English dubbing was very bad and that you really did have watch the film in its original French. That’s not true for District 13. The dubbing is quite good both in terms of technology and acting. The French voice acting is notably better. But the English voice acting is good, and it doesn’t spoil the film.