2004Director: Pierre Morel
Cast: David Belle, Cyril Rafaelli, Bibi Naceri.
avid Belle is the pioneer of Le Parkour, the French street sport inspired by the delicate art of graceful movement. It is a radical, captivating pursuit: a manipulation of the body through time and space. It is beautiful. Le Parkour slips seamlessly onto film in this Luc Besson-penned dystopian grab-bag. Cyril Rafaelli, another traceur, joins Belle in Pierre Morel’s Escape from New York-style beat-the-bomb action flick. After no time at all, the film is very quickly and effectively set-up for a no-nonsense dash to the end.
Like Prachya Pinkaew’s Ong-Bak, the choreography is refreshingly inventive and authentic. The harmony between body and space, which Belle and Rafaelli have so completely mastered, works well on film. In fact, it’s their spiritual home: a medium defined by its fluidity of movement. Further yet, the action film is even more a piece of spectacle, of manoeuvring past obstacles, of flourishes and revolutions. The demi tour, lache, and roulade have never been put to better use than in eluding bullets, bombs, and bad guys. It’s breathtaking to watch them in action, gliding through the air in such a pure expression of freedom. Best of all, there’s no computer fakery—they’re really putting their lives at risk for our entertainment!
District 13 takes place in the walled-in Paris ghettoes of 2010, grounding the narrative with a basic but valid social consciousness. It’s like a super charged Le Haine. Belle’s character, the nimble and noble reformer Leito, burns with anger at the irresponsibility of the French government, who have abandoned the ghettoes, hoping they wipe themselves out in complex drug wars. Rafaelli plays the rebellious undercover cop Damien, who teams up with Leito. What better freedom fighters than these two “free runners”? A “clean bomb” winds up in the badlands of District B-13, and Belle and Rafaelli are unleashed on the enemy to save the day.
The narrative is never less than diverting, much like the later output of Carpenter (Ghosts of Mars, Vampires) rather than his true classics. The underworld kingpin Taha, deliciously played by Bibi Naceri, is a real treat—a particularly arrogant form of bastard. The visual gags are well timed and pay off with a light touch. The completely gorgeous Dany Verissimo plays Lola, Leito’s sister. She has little or no purpose in the film, other than the ones I will conjure in my private moments. Strangely, she seems to be of a completely different racial origin to her brother. This is never mentioned in the film. To be fair, they’re too busy killing one another to notice.
The obvious problem with the film is that it’s entirely shallow, like most films from the Besson stable; Taxi and The Fifth Element also suffer from a lack of content. After a while, the sheen becomes slightly dull and there are no substantial ideas to buff it up again. The film is not quite astute enough to distance itself from its more improbable events. In contrast to Carpenter’s naturally satirical style, Morel’s earnestness comes across as naïve and a little soppy. District 13 steers toward a neat conclusion, leaving many conflicts unresolved, and the relationship between the bad-good Leito and the good-bad Damien feels too easily forged. This is a spectacle designed for pure exhilaration, and on that level, it is a success. Yet with no viable social commentary, the violence and explosions sometimes feel both excessive and aimless. Besson and Morel use the current backdrop of racial tensions and youth discontent fairly overtly, but the answers they offer register as cloyingly simplistic.
Ultimately, District 13 belongs to Belle and Rafaelli and their extraordinary stunts. Most impressively, Belle races through a run-down apartment building, jumping through windows, sliding down balconies, “tic-tacking” off walls, outrunning the enemy, and confounding our belief of what the human body can do. In one incredible sequence, he pulls off a series of increasingly difficult jumps that almost fractured my ankles as I sat paralysed, gaping at the screen in envy. It may not be worth a damn thing, and the film may finally have next to nothing to say, but it is such a visual treat that, at times, the sight of Belle twisting through the air, irrepressible and intangibly brilliant, feels close to a pure, uncomplicated form of cinema.
District 13 is currently playing in limited release in the US and UK.