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District 13 (2004)
Director: Pierre Morel

review by Joshua Rainbird

District 13 (aka: Banlieue 13; District B13) is a welcome addition to the new breed of action films that uses real stunt-work rather than relying on computer generated graphics. Like in Ong-Bak, the actors perform the stunts, work out the action sequences and risk everything without the use of safety harnesses or wirework. Whilst these films have simple storylines, the camera work is snappy, with frame-changes quick enough to satisfy even the shortest attention spans of the MTV generations.

Set in a walled-in suburban ghetto of a near-future Paris, District 13 has become a hell where the hospitals and schools have already closed down, and the police would love to withdraw from. Rival gangs in pimped-up motors speed through the empty streets. Guns are commonplace. Even the supermarché has sentries posted. Within this concrete jungle one apartment block stands clear of graffiti, the home of the ghetto's own Mr Clean - Leïto (David Belle), an urban gymnast who vaults across rooftops at breathtaking speed.

However, Leïto has created a problem: in his eagerness to clean up the neighbourhood he has stolen a million euros worth of cocaine, and that's a lot of drugs to flush down the drain when a dozen hoods come asking for it back. Headed by man-mountain K2 (Tony D'Amario) the thugs quickly shoot a path to Le�to's door and then the action begins. Bullets spray as he flies through the door, leaping over banisters and tic-tacking off walls with economic precision, hotly pursued by the quickened hoods. The villains, after a desperate chase and a few broken ankles, soon find they are unable to catch him on foot. And no wonder, parkour is Belle's sport, he invented it and he has perfected it, but don't expect the fancy flips or somersaults that you'll find in YouTube videos as he leaps from tower-block to tower-block. His skill is clean and efficient, using seemingly effortless moves to achieve his near-superhuman feats; he's like Spider-Man without the webs, secret identity and safety features, it's death defying and real!

But District 13 is a cruel world where honest people are twisted by state abandonment into games of survival. The police appease the gangs with uneasy truces that gnaw at their souls; justice needs resources as well as courage and both are scant within the ghetto. So, when the cocaine-driven crime-boss Taha (Larbi Naceri) acquires a neutron bomb, as easily as he kidnapped Leïto's sister Lola (Dany Verissimo), a special kind of detective is called in to retrieve it. Enter Captain Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli), a latter-day Fantômas, a doppelganger who assumes the identity of his recent victims with chameleon-ease. Once in, he can single-handedly clear out a casino full of gun-toting heavies with his bare fists, and a few well-placed slugs, when his sneaky tricks are outwitted. Yet this super-cop also has a trait that his superiors will exploit for their own ends - a middle-class education that has instilled in him an idealism alien to District 13. Damien values the republican tenets that built modern France; he is incorruptible. Therefore teaming him up with the passionate Leïto will bring its challenges as Mr Clean hates dirty tricks and is not afraid to kill cops in his passion. Can the two heroes forge a fraternity in a world where equality and liberty have been denied? It's an uneasy partnership.

And this uncomfortable dichotomy permeates the filmmaking too. It struggles to create realism by portraying a world that is similar to our own. We have seen similar walls erected to control people - the Gaza Strip, and the townships of Soweto in apartheid South Africa. The characters are playing in-mate roles within a binary system, like subjects trapped in one of Irving Goffman's Asylums: Leïto and Lola don't want to give up their home they just want a better standard of living. This creates a plausible world that then nests a surreality of oversights. Within these walls, where are the women? There are hints of prostitutes, but apart from Lola and one of Leïto's briefly seen elderly neighbours, District 13 is a vacuum populated only by testosterone-pumped patriarchs. They were none in the gangs, none in the police, not even a gangster's moll.

And the closer you look you see other dichotomies. The acting is patchy - Belle and Raffaelli were more wooden than the props they landed on, they would have been better suited as stunt-doubles rather than given starring roles, however, D'Amario just about convinced me as the formidable K2. Consider the action-choreography: ignoring the conveniently placed pipes, parkour is used with naturalistic effect, but the combat sequences seem over-rehearsed and delivered with rigid control. Then there is the borrowed plot: standard and linear, with no real surprises, except for the shock of Leïto's actions when locked in a cell. The characters, too: apart from Leïto whom some would label an antihero (I prefer anti-thug), were of singular dimension and seemed to be hired in from gangsters-'r'-us, and yet the script is slick and polished. Even the music has two qualities: on a portable TV it sounded like a tinny remix of Jean-Michel Jarre but with a surround-sound woofer it injects drum-and-bass action. Lastly, don't trust the dubbing unless you want a Hollywood B-movie, the subtitled police scenes have a subtle darkness!

So overall District 13 is a bit like graffiti: over-designed, urban and edgy, colourful in places, and exciting when fresh. Whilst it's more than a tag saying, 'parkour was here!' the mural never quite covers the wall.

Disc extras are where this Momentum DVD excels. In additional to the standard fare of outtakes, extended scene and trailers of new releases, there are some enjoyable extras that will complement a library of any free-running fan. Parkour vision - an interesting but unfortunately brief documentary about parkour and lapining narrated by notable Urban Freeflow regulars including Blue, EZ, Sticky and Bam. Nice displays of precision jumps and tic-tacs in both rural and urban settings. Best of all there is a documentary featuring Stephane Vigroux (Higher Ground), the injured free-runner who missed out on Jump London. In this, he talks about the early training with David Belle and Sebastien Foucan and the struggles he had not only with overcoming his ligament injury but the conflicts amongst the pioneering traceurs as parkour diversified. His main focus is on the tenacity and humility needed to maintain optimal physical condition. It shows him training Forrest in équilibre (balancing) and sâut de précision (precision jumps).
District 13

up on the roof, District 13

big fight site, District 13

stop or I'll shoot, District 13

US region 1 DVD



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