Should I Watch..? District 13
What's the big deal?
District 13 (also known as "District B13" and "Banlieue 13" in its original French) is an action thriller film from France that was released in 2004 and features the same writing and directing team behind the wildly popular Taken (1). The film is notable for being one of the first movies based around the theme of parkour or free running, created by Frenchman David Belle who also stars in the film. As well as utilising parkour without the need of CG or wire work, the film also acts as a political satire regarding class poverty and the social anxiety arising from it that was plaguing France around the time of release. It was successful enough to generate a sequel in 2009 - District 13: Ultimatum (2) - in addition to a Hollywood remake in 2014, Brick Mansions (3).
What's it about?
In the near future, law and order have degenerated among the outer suburbs of Paris to the point where whole communities are surrounded by enormous walls and the people within are left to fend for themselves. In District 13, criminal gangs have taken over but some citizens like Leïto fight back, despite getting himself into trouble as a consequence. After making off and disposing of a drugs packet, Leïto finds his sister Lola kidnapped by gang leader Taha and Leïto himself is sent to the nearest police station and is arrested.
Beyond the ghetto's walls, undercover cop Damian Tomaso is assigned into District 13 to locate and disarm a nuclear device that Taha's men have somehow stolen from a transport truck. With the clock ticking down, Tomaso has no choice to but use Leïto's knowledge of District 13 and his fighting ability to help him achieve his goal. But what exactly does Taha want with the warhead and why did he activate it within District 13?
Capt. Damian Tomaso
Taha Ben Mamoud
Luc Besson & Bibi Naceri
Release Date (UK)
7th July, 2006
What's to like?
Action fans drooling over the first Taken film were seduced by its gritty violence, no-nonsense hero in the unlikely shape of Liam Neeson and fairly straight-forward plot. District 13 might be a bit more light-hearted but its action is much more satisfying, as Belle and Raffaelli leap about the set like a couple of Jackie Chan imitators. Some of the stunt work is stunning - director Morel knows how to get a good looking action picture on screen and frankly, I prefer this to Neeson's grim adventure in Europe. In a way, it reminds me of Indonesian action blast The Raid (4) which also has a simple plot, dazzling action sequences and crucially, something jaded action fans haven't seen before. You don't expect it to be as good as it is and it's the same story here.
Besson's script keeps the film rolling along at a frenetic pace, dispensing with characterisation altogether and pressing the accelerator down hard towards the climax. However, the script does offer more than acrobatic fisticuffs - the paranoia exhibited by the supposedly civilised parts of Paris isn't that far removed from the tensions that existed at the time with student riots and uncontrolled migration causing schisms in society. If anything, it's feels more relevant today that it did back then. If you're wanting something that's entertaining, thrilling and most importantly something a little different then District 13 will be more than enough to satisfy even the most worn-out adrenaline junkies.
- Despite helping to co-write the script with Luc Besson, Bibi Naceri still had to audition for the role of Taha along with other actors.
- Despite a positive reception outside of France, the film was strongly criticised in its homeland for its weak plot and its similarities to Ong Bak (5) and Escape From New York (6).
- Despite a common misconception, the film actually takes place in 2013, not 2010. According to the opening script, the decision to section off District 13 was taken in 2010 with the wall being completed in October that year. It then says "Three years later..." making the film's events take place in 2013.
What's not to like?
Naturally, any film with a running time of less than ninety minutes is going to be cutting back on a lot and it would seem that this film disposes of a lot more than most. Characters are reduced to a name and an appearance and that's it - we don't understand why Leïto is the sole person not involved in criminal activity or why his sister Lola is involved. The film simply doesn't have the time to fill in the gaps so it doesn't pay to think too deeply about the plot itself. Just enjoy the stunts, that's what they're hoping.
They're also hoping that you don't notice the suspect acting. For all of Belle and Raffaelli's gravity-defying leaps, neither really convince in their roles but this may be down to a lack of quality dialogue. Nothing about the film feels natural - it's too contrived and artificial, like you're watching someone play a video game with the cheats on. And while this isn't a problem for me, anyone with a passionate hatred of subtitles should stay away - I'm sure there is an English dub somewhere but I'd find that too distracting. It's not like there's a lot of dialogue in District 13 but what is there matters so reading the subtitles is essential, I'm afraid. Never mind, there's always Brick Mansions if you're lazy...
Should I watch it?
Oui, absolument! District 13 is a real firecracker of a film, exploding with pace and imagination that leaves its rivals far behind. It may be a one-trick pony but it's a cracking trick and one I rarely tired of. The script does let it down a little by being a fairly lazy rip-off of other dystopian scenarios but the electrifying action scenes and dizzyingly stunt work more than make up for it.
Great For: free running enthusiasts, action fans, fans of The Matrix (7)
Not So Great For: accident and emergency wards, copycat videos on YouTube
What else should I watch?
For more of the same, District 13: Ultimatum offers the same mix of explosive action and improbable jumping as its older brother. But since this film came out, the rest of the world has caught up to the world of free-running or parkour, whatever you wanna call it - even Casino Royale (8) has a parkour sequence on a building site with fellow free running legend Sébastian Foucan.
Certainly, Ong Bak offers a similar style of stunt work as Tony Jaa performs a stunning array of martial arts throughout the film. And if you can find it, The Raid also offers a good deal of fancy fisticuffs although CG is used extensively during gun battles and the like. It would appear to me that Hollywood action can't quite cut it when it comes to delivering action on this sort of scale, instead content with endless explosions and bigger guns. And me personally, I would rather watch this than any of Michael Bay's explosion-heavy action films...
© 2015 Benjamin Cox