DISTRICT B13 is set during a fairly dystopian vision of 2010 Paris where crime is so out of control the government has divided the city into districts with the most notorious District 13 sectioned off behind a large wall. Here rival gangs fight for supremacy out in the streets. Leito (David Belle), who runs one of the few relatively decent apartment bocks left, angers the local drug lord Taha (Bibi Naceri) when he steals and destroys a large batch of his drugs.
With the help of the crooked District 13 police, Taha retaliates by kidnapping Leito’s sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) and has Leito imprisoned. Six months later, when Taha steals a secret and highly dangerous bomb from the French military, the Government allows Leito to go free in order to help their best cop Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) to track it down in District 13 before it detonates.
Seasoned action fans will have already noticed the flavor of French filmmaking gradually seeping its way into the international action cinema scene in recent years. Luc Besson has been particularly active producing such films as KISS OF THE DRAGON and THE TRANSPORTER. Christophe Gans’ excellent BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF was, in particular, a fine demonstration that a French studio could deliver a martial arts movie (in fact a movie of many genres) on par with Hollywood and Hong Kong. Though essentially French, Gans’ film featured authentic Hong Kong choreography courtesy of Phillip Kwok, the martial arts performance of genre favorite Mark Dacascos and the international star recognition of Monica Bellucci.
By contrast, with its predominantly French cast and crew, DISTRICT B13 is even more of a local product. The French hip-hop soundtrack further cements the films cultural identity and direction as well as also adding a fresh vibe for international audiences.
What makes DISTRICT B13 instantly notable and fresh is the incorporation of parkour into the action. Parkour or “free running” is the sport/discipline founded by David Belle, in which the player negotiates obstacles in an imaginative and often spectacular way, particularly within an urban environment (but not always). The action genre and the concrete jungle setting of this film make for an ideal exhibition of parkour at its most elaborate and visually exciting. Watching parkour itself can be breathtaking, seeing David Belle dodging bullets and bad guys within the context of the film is even more exhilarating. Though not a martial art per se, parkour proves effective in escaping and incapacitating the villains. David Belle is extremely talented and is able to pull off some unlikely feats of agility and dexterity. DISTRICT B13 has drawn just comparisons with ONG BAK, demonstrating parkour in a similar way that ONG BAK showcased Muay Thai boxing. Fans of Tony Jaa and Jackie Chan should really appreciate and enjoy the physical skills of movie newcomer David Belle.
Traditional fight fans should not be too disappointed either. True, the gimmick of the film may be parkour but there is still some decent martial arts on show courtesy of Cyril Raffaelli, who action film fans may recognize as one of the twins from KISS OF THW DRAGON. Here he has a lead role, looking like a blonde Vin Diesel. If Belle brings the graceful athleticism to the action, then Raffaelli provides the ass kicking with some fine fighting scenes, particularly a well choreographed scrap in an underground casino. This fight really shows off what Raffaelli can do both as a performer and choreographer, and features plenty of hard hitting falls and crashes by the stunt team. The initial dual narrative of the film is quite effective with each protagonist showing his stuff individually, leaving the viewer itching to see them fight together, something that is slowly teased out creating a very promising sense of anticipation.
Unfortunately the film builds up to a slightly disappointing and relatively flat ending with regards to the action. With the film ending after around 80-minutes it does feel like it is missing one final blow-out action scene. This is a small gripe, which is more wishful thinking rather than a major criticism. Another slight oversight is that Leito’s parkour ability is never explained, nor for that matter how his pursuers are able to keep up with him as much as they do. While Damien’s kick-ass-cop persona at least begins to back up his martial arts skills, Leito’s abilities are without any sort of back story, which is odd when they are so prominent throughout the film. Though this shouldn’t prevent the viewer from enjoying David Belle’s talents, it does feel a little like parkour for the sake of it. Slick camerawork and editing as well as great music help keep DISTRICT B13 rolling smoothly, demonstrating that the film is as technically proficient outside the action scenes as it is during them.
With the emphasis largely on action, DISTRICT B13 is however not totally without any political context either. The film echoes the recent riots in outer Paris and just as the French authorities dealt with the dissidents severely, so they do with the troublesome suburbs in DISTRICT B13, illustrating the politician’s contempt for the lower classes, something that becomes a major plot point in the film.
Though DISTRICT B13 seems to be riding the slipstream of ONG BAK and the like, it is still a very welcome breath of fresh air compared to the usual by-the-book blockbusters from Hollywood. Both David Belle and particularly Cyril Raffaelli should be names for action fans to look out for in the future. The plot is not overcomplicated and even throws in a few mild surprises, making for an exciting, fresh and easy to follow action movie. It is not without its faults though. There are no real stand-out acting performances and the film feels like it begins to wind down a little early, leaving the action weighted unevenly with the best scenes occurring early on in the film. That said, DISTRICT B13 is still a cool, short but sweet effort and one of the best, recent European action films.REVIEW: District 13 (2004),
Cyril Raffaelli • David Belle • District 13 (2004)