Tuesday, August 28, 2007

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: District B13 (2004)

The first time I heard about this Euro-Fu action movie was at the Toronto Film Festival in 2005. While I was returning to the airport by bus with Kathryn, the person in the seat ahead of us, a producer, got on her cell phone and telephoned another producer (one who works on the new Battlestar Galactica) and began raving about a low-budget action film she had just seen. Apparently, she had staked out the festival to look for properties either to buy or to emulate, and she was gaga over the French genre film, District B13. It's a movie with no American stars which lasts a scant 85 minutes, and - I can happily now report - it is one hell of an action movie.

A friend of mine (The House Between's Arlo, Jim Blanton) gave me a copy of the DVD recently, and I had the opportunity to watch the film just last night. District B13 is the story of a Parisian ghetto in the near-future year 2010. Barrio B13 is a dangerous place, with no communication or in or out, and heavily-fortified checkpoints at exits and entrances. Armed thugs guard some buildings, and the police are corrupt and getting ready to withdraw all together. The schools and post offices are closed - permanently. "This ain't Monaco, it's Baghdad" reports one gangster. Ruling Barrio 13 is the crime lord Taha (Bibi Naceri), who maintains an army of tattooed, bald strong-men, led by the menacing K-2. He also has a giant, monstrous subordinate he calls "Yeti." Taha keeps much of the populace strung out on drugs and rules with an iron fist.

Then, one day, the French government manages *ahem* to lose a neutron bomb in Barrio 13, one that could wipe out all two million residents, even while conveniently leaving the Barrio's structures (meaning buildings and homes) intact. Even more frightening, the bomb has been activated and is now on a 24-hour countdown to detonation. The government decides to send in one of their best men: a one-man-army named Damien (Cyril Rafaells) who is a "by-the-book" kind of good soldier and who, just recently, took out an entire criminal stronghold (an underground casino) single-handedly. Damien is teamed with a prisoner named Leito (David Belle), a man who grew up in Barrio 13 and knows the lay of the land. Leito's sister, the beautiful Lola (Dany Verissimo) is Taha's prisoner inside the district. Unlikely allies, Damien and Leito have just hours to stop the bomb from destroying the Barrio...

The first shot of District B13 is a great one that lets us know we're in for a good time here, and safely ensconced in the hands of a clever director (Pierre Morel). We see a rat squeak through a hole in the isolation wall of this "shithouse of a city" (even the rats are leaving...) and then the view pans up and up. The camera sweeps over the wall and - to a pulsing soundtrack that reminded me of John Carpenter's glory days - proceeds to a fast-motion, hyperactive tour of the district. We see abandoned cars on the streets; homeless people asleep outside; citizens doing drugs, etc. It's a vision of unremitting urban blight, brought on, the dialogue tells us, by economic woes. Some six million people in the country are unemployed.

Before long, the roving camera has found Leito's apartment, where he is busily destroying a shipment of Taha's drugs. K-2 and other minions arrive and before long, there's an insane, absolutely exhilarating, beautifully choreographed chase scene across the rooftops. This scene is incredibly kinetic, artfully cut and exciting as all hell. And it also made me wonder if the makers of last year's Casino Royale (2006) saw this film when they planned that film's first act construction site chase. As in that film, here there is a lot of running, jumping, swinging (falling...) and rolling. It's a splendid stunt sequence.

And it is promptly topped by the very next action scene: Damien's wholesale decimation of a criminal organization in a casino. It's a virtual ballet of ridiculous (but beautiful) violence and I must confess, this is the scene that really got to me. I started cackling because I realized just how long it had been since I'd seen unpretentious, straight-up action flick.

Which isn't to say that this "near future" epic doesn't boast some deeper meaning between the fight scenes. The film implicitly involves France's not so great economy, and the aforementioned unemployment rate. There's also a line of dialogue about the country's angry youth "burning cars," which recalled for me images we saw here (on TV) of civil unrest in France late in October of 2005, when there was a week of rioting (Oct. 27 - November 2). Of course, this film was made before those particular events, but the idea underlying this dystopian future world is that France has some "issues" with gangs, vandals, youth violence, etc.

The other point the film makes is not one exclusive to France. In case you didn't figure it out from the plot synopsis above, the neutron bomb that ends up in Barrio 13 doesn't really get there by accident. There's a conspiracy by the government to destroy the ghetto, because it is easier to kill two million people than actually solve the problems of bureaucracy, failing infrastructure and creating good jobs. At least according to one official. Yep, it will SAVE THE TAXPAYERS money to kill all the inhabitants, one of our heroes is told directly. My immediate thought on hearing this strangely amoral (and guiltless) explanation was of Hurricane Katrina here in the States, (again, 2005 - after this movie came out), when Republican Representative Richard H. Baker of Baton Rouge (allegedly) told lobbyists: "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did." That's sort of the French Government's policy in District B13, only with a more "hands on" approach.

At eighty-five minutes, District B13 is truly short and sweet. It doesn't wear out its welcome or strike any false notes. It's a near-perfect mix of everything in just the right proportions. It's exciting, it's cheesy, it's got some social commentary, and it's a hell of a lot of fun. I can't put my finger on it, but there's something very eighties about this film. It's a cheesy "future city" movie and it got me thinking about eighties flicks like Future Kill, Blade Runner and Escape from New York.


  1. joey_bishop_jr.1:38 AM

    I was wondering when Escape From New York was going to get mentioned! It sounds like a lot of fun...I'll have to find it and give it a watch.

    And John, if you want a straight up fun action flick (no social commentary, sorry), may I humbly offer Versus as a title to look for? It's a Ryuehi Kitamura film ( the guy who did Godzilla:Final Wars), and just so over the top it will put a huge, giddy smile on your face...you'll never be the same after watching it! I have to admit it's a bout 20 mins too long, tho.

    And have you watched Equilibrium yet?

  2. Anonymous9:59 AM

    Well, when I want a straight-up fun action flick I throw in a copy of Above the Law!

    "You think you're above the law? You're not above mine!"

    -Steven Seagal