Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Completist Guide to the District 13 series (2004-2009)
It always kind of disappointed me when Luc Besson stopped directing films for a while after the commercial disappointment of The Messenger in 1999. The guy had such a fresh, unique style and slick camerawork it felt a shame that he wasn't churning out more weird and wonderful films like Leon or The Fifth Element. Of course, looking closer at his imdb record he was far from quiet during this period. He actually focused his efforts into helping other French filmmakers into making their marks on the cinematic landscape by writing and producing a series of action films both in French and English. Some of have accused him of making nothing more than clones of himself (and that may be true) but that doesn't stop a lot of those films from being pretty damn enjoyable.
District 13 is set in the outskirts of Paris in the not-too-distant future. A section of the city, dubbed District 13, has been walled off to house most of the city's criminal element. Of course, not everyone inside is a criminal and one man who is trying to make the place safer is Leito (David Belle). When he tries to turn the district's major drug lord Taha (Bibi Naceri) over the police he is arrested for his trouble. Months later, the French government learns that a nuke has been smuggled into District 13 and is now in the hands of Taha. So the government forces Leito to team up with an undercover cop Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli). Their seemingly impossible mission is to sneak back inside, track down the nuke and disarm it before it goes off.
Clocking in at just over 75 minutes District 13 is a breathless movie that jumps from one scene to the next (more often than not literally). The focus of a lot of press and advertising for the film was on David Belle, a non-actor who has been a free runner for many years and invented the sport of Parkour (basically just running up and over rooftops and stuff!) I remember seeing him years ago on an advert doing insane jumps between buildings and its nice to see someone's transferred his gift for doing these insane stunts to the big screen. There are several extended set pieces in the film that showcase his skills which are seemingly shot without the aid of any CGI or wirework. Despite the fact he hasn't acted before he's actually pretty charismatic and perfectly fits the role of Leito. Surprisingly the other major role in the film is also played by a non-actor - Cyril Raffaelli - who has been a fighter/stuntman on a lot of action films. Most memorably he played one of the twins that fought Jet Li at the end of Kiss of the Dragon (another Luc Besson production). Again, Raffaelli has a lot of charisma and a great rapport with Belle.
The plot borrows heavily from John Carpenter's Escape from New York. The major difference is that the look of the film is brighter and far less atmospheric. Much like Carpenter's film was a commentary on the crime-ridden streets of New York in the early 80s, Besson makes direct comparisons with current troubles in Paris' immigrant ghettos - amplifying the setting to satirical levels. What's great about the film is that Besson is constantly trying to cram in twist after twist. For instance, Damien goes undercover as a fellow prisoner in order to gain Leito trust and you assume his cover will be blown at some dramatic moment towards the end of the film but instead Leito recognises he's a cop almost instantly. It makes the film fresh and unpredictable. You're never quite sure where it's going to go next.
The supporting cast is also full of great characters. Bibi Naceri (who also co-wrote the film) is electric as Taha. Swanning around like a skinny Tony Montona in a dressing gown. The part where he gets his comeuppance was brilliantly played. Another very memorable character was K2 (Tony D'Amario), Taha's right hand man, a huge man mountain of a guy with K2 shaved in the back of his head. His lumbering portrayal makes a great counterpoint to the lithe, fast-moving duo of Damien and Leito. Dany Verissimo gets the rather thankless task of playing Leito's kid sister who gets kidnapped early on and forced to become a junkie by Taha. She doesn't get much to do other than give a reason for Leito to stop the bomb but she still plays the role well.
All in all, District 13 is very enjoyable film even though it probably doesn't hold up to too many re-watches. It's a fun, fast-paced affair with some eye-popping stunts and a rollercoaster story - what more do you want? My only word of warning would be in regards to the dubbed version. Avoid the it like the plague. For some reason they got English and Irish actors to dub the voices and it's really jarring. Watch the subtitled version, it's not like there's a wealth of dialogue in the film anyway!
District 13: Ultimatum (2009)
Five years later Besson wrote an produced this follow-up. In the intervening time the director of the original, Pierre Morel, had gone on to achieve worldwide success with the film that introduced a 50-something Liam Neeson as a credible action star - Taken (again, written and produced by Besson - seriously when does this guy sleep?). I guess given the success of that film it was inevitable that he wouldn't return to direct this sequel. Sadly, it turns out that Morel's directing was quite a key element to the original film's success. As much as I wanted this to be great, it's a notch or two below the original.
District 13: Ultimatum is set a few years after the original film, the open blurb explains that despite Leito and Damien's actions the government haven't solved the situation and District 13 is just as bad as ever. Leito spends most of his time using explosives to blow up the wall surrounding the district while Damien carries on being a supercop on the outside. But things are about to get much worse as a rogue element of French Secret Service led by Walter Gassman (Daniel Duva) has decided it's time to wipe out District 13 for good by making it look like some residents have killed a group of cops. Leito and Damien must team up once more to put a stop to Gassman's plan before it causes a political storm.
I've got the preface the rest of the review by saying that the film isn't bad, in fact it's very enjoyable, it's just that the story and action isn't quite up to the level of the original. I don't know whether time had caught up with him or he'd got injured at some point but David Belle gets noticeably less action/parkour scenes which is a shame as they really made the original film stand out. A couple of scenes also clearly use CGI to enhance his jumps which spoilt the effect a little. In fact, the new director Patrick Alessandrin uses a lot of CGI in the film, mostly to zoom around the city. It definitely gives the film a more stylised feel but I don't know whether it was really needed.
The story isn't quite as good this time around. I don't know maybe it's because Bibi Naceri didn't contribute to the script but whereas the original was twisty and unpredictable this film is very straight forward. You can see every plot point coming a mile away and it's all very join-the-dots. Gassman's plan to frame the gangs of District 13 seems very weak and poorly thought out. Actually, the only real twist in the film is what happens at the end. It's kind of a bizarre ending but I guess it makes sense. There's a nice symmetry with the original film and it earns the subtitle: Ultimatum. Again, Besson tries to make some modern comparisons - this time with Iraq - unfortunately for some reason he didn't credit the audience with figuring this out themselves because at one point, when he is talking about the Secret Service's masterplan to make loads of money from reconstructing District 13, Leito says "It's just like Iraq."
The high point of the film has to be Cyril Raffaelli's scenes. The guy nearly carries the whole film with his stunning fight scenes (and this is the reason you should watch the film). One extended sequence where he fights of hoards of men all the while trying not to damage a priceless Van Gogh painting was very high quality - the kind of thing you'd expect from Jackie Chan in his prime. It's a real shame that he seems to have gone back to doing stunt work as he's got the potential to make some great movies as a lead actor. He and Belle still have a great rapport but unfortunately the script doesn't give them much conflict so the pairing isn't quite as enjoyable. Another thing that let the film down is the lack of memorable supporting characters. Sadly, Tony D'Amario (K2) passed away between films and they replace him with several rival gang bosses but none of them seem very defined.
I think the major fault of the film was to push it's running time up to 90 minutes. It doesn't really have enough story to fill it and would have been far more comfortable if they'd made it 75 like the original film. Although it's a bit of a disappointment if you liked the original the sequel worth seeing once. There's still a lot to recommend like Rafaelli's fight scenes and the bit where Leito and Damien drive a car through the halls of the Secret Service building.