District B13 is a film that would really feel more at home in the early eighties, coupled right behind something like Brian Trenchard Smith’s BMX Bandits. It exists purely as a showcase for the Parkour – seemingly impossible grandiose leaps across rooftops, dazzling and almost dance-like kung-fu sequences, and all without one wire. And in that regard, this is French exploitation filmmaking at it’s best, coming from the house of Luc Besson, who’s lately starting to resemble Roger Corman in more ways than one. Like Corman, Besson’s has primarily become the same kind of ‘name above the title’ that guarantees much popcorn will be munched in the process of watching one of his films. And, his name is quickly becoming associated hand-in-hand with French B-Movie filmmaking – Luc Besson, le roi de la B – with Ong-Bak, B13 and its’ sequel among others, all coming from or at least “presented by” his production house Europacorp. These are drive-in films without drive-ins, and that’s a real pity. This in particular would play well sandwiched inbetween Dead-End Drive-In and The Man From Hong-Kong.
Coming off of cinematographer’s duty for the latter two Transporter films, Pierre Morel is one of the reasons that the portions of the film that do work work so well – he has an eye for capturing some of the feeling of the kineticism of movement that’s going across the screen, particularly in the opening segment, with the character Leito first rappelling down, clambering up, and swinging from side to side of his apartment building. And, while at times the combined usage of all those muted grays contrasted with the brightness of those gaudy cars can remind one of an extended television commercial (“Sketchers!”), it’s one of those that you’d catch late at night and rush to get back to, only too late. It also gives the film a ‘fast, cheap’ feeling, and in that regard, it’s among well-intentioned brethren – like Stunt Rock.
And, more than a bit of this is due to David Belle, who’s credited as the progenitor of Parkour, as the main character Leito, who seems to be a kind of Everyman Superman – crashing through skylights and holding Bibi Naceri’s character Taha at gunpoint, whose drugs he’d stolen just before the film’s opening. While Cyril Raefelli’s martial arts set-pieces do well to compliment him, it’s Belle that Morel is clearly in love with – in an aesthetic sense. There’s a better sense of rhythm with Belle’s set-pieces, while Raefelli’s are more brunt, with an editing that – while not incoherent in any sense – owes a lot more to the type of music that plays just incessantly behind every scene, an all hip-hop original soundtrack from in-house artist Da Octopuss.
It’s when the actors stop to talk things over that everything really begins to falter. Luc Besson has never been much of a writer, aside from Leon – and here, there’s an oddly constructed attempt at social commentary that’s actually initially interesting, though it owes much to Carpenter’s Escape From New York, with the poorer suburbs being separated by wall and wire-fence and denied basic essentials, and a sort of feudal system springing up in place. Yet, none of this is really presented in a serious manner, with it all instead being played for the same kind of middle-area camp that Besson used in things like The Fifth Element. And so, when this subtext caps off with the inclusion of the line “six million people died because they didn’t have blond hair and blue eyes,” as the character Damien learns that it’s his own government that’s planted the bomb that the two characters have been on the hunt for since they’ve met (!), it’s disconcerting. But, it’s so sparse and simple-minded that it’s almost non-existent, and Morel seems to realize that Godwin’s Law applies to movies as well, luckily enough.
I have also, incidentally, never spent much time listening to French hip-hop. So, this film was a baptism of fire, in that respect.