(Banlieue 13)

Directed by Pierre Morel. France. 2004.

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The France of 2010 in Pierre Morel's District 13 doesn't seem to be that much different from the France of today.  The suburbs of Paris are full of gangs, weapons and drugs - a no-go area for the respectable.  The main difference is that the respectable can't get into the banlieues even if they wanted to, because the French government has built a ruddy great wall around the area and left them to their own devices. 

Rather topical, what with the banlieues burning earlier this year, Israel's erection of a security barrier and even some anti-immigration voices raised in the US Congress asking for something similar on the American/Mexican border.  And it's also a shameless rip-off of John Carpenter's Escape from New York

But before you think that this is a clever satire on the current state of beggar-my-neighbour geo-politics, hold on.  Apart from some entirely unwelcome, heavy-handed, “why-can't-we-all-just-get-along?” type platitudes at the end, this is an incredibly stupid film with a ragged, second-hand plot and perfunctory character development. 

Not that this matters, as District 13 is really quite an entertaining series of kung-fu set pieces attached to a buddy-movie.  With added running.  Part one of our starring double act is David Belle who plays Leito, the resident Banlieue 13 good guy.  Belle is famous for being one of the founders of the physical discipline of Parkour, known in English as freerunning. This involves hurdling, jumping, swinging and generally taking the quickest (but not the most sensible) route under, over and through all obstacles in your path. 

In the rather good opening sequence, Leito is being pursued by the goons of local drug lord and slum boss Taha (played by Bibi Naceri, co-writer of the script with Luc Besson) and we're treated to a breathless chase through and on-top of the tenement buildings of District 13.  Unfortunately for Leito, due to a corrupt local cop, this culminates in his imprisonment and his sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) being taken hostage by Taha. 

The other half of our double act is Damien (Cyril Raffaelli), an elite officer of the French police's Special Intervention Unit.  Elite in this case means kung fu master and Damien duly gets to strut his high-kicking stuff in a clandestine casino-bust in another enjoyable scene.  Duly introduced to both our protagonists (who couldn't possibly work together, could they?) we can settle down to some French-flavoured chop-socky as the running/fighting duo (I know which one I'd rather be an expert in) rescue the sister and save the banlieue from a nuclear weapon.  Yes, that's right a nuclear weapon. 

At this point, the film rather loses its way.  It's not often that you'd wish a film was a bit longer but at a running time of only 85 minutes, the viewing experience is very much of a start and an end tacked together with no middle - a shame as the whole thing is brainless fun but ends up unsatisfyingly shapeless.  But with a few genuinely funny lines (even in translation via the subtitles), and a cracking first half hour, it's worth renting on DVD with a few beers for part of your Saturday night.

Simon Melville
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