One of the problems with contemporary movies is that they're too often inspired more by other movies than by real life. This is especially true of French action import District B13, which, like a Quentin Tarantino movie, is essentially a compendium of ideas and elements lifted from other films. Thankfully, as with Tarantino, District B13 has the wit and verve to turn this potential weakness into a strength.
Set in the near future -- Paris, 2010 -- District B13 is based on a conceit borrowed from the John Carpenter cult-flick Escape From New York. In this case, the French capital's "high-risk housing projects" have been walled off, with a police station just outside the concrete-and-steel border less interested in rooting out drugs and violence than keeping them safely inside the walls.
With a nuclear bomb apparently hijacked by a B13 warlord and set to decimate an eight-kilometer radius within 24 hours, the French secretary of defense recruits Damien (Cyril Raffaelli, stuntman and fight choreographer on the Transporter movies), a top cop, to track down and diffuse the bomb. "Two million people are at risk," the politician tells Damien. "Half are scumbags, but the other half need us."
Damien's partner and guide for this mission impossible (defusing a bomb in the middle of "the worst no-go ghetto") is imprisoned B13-native Leïto (David Belle, a martial arts/extreme-sports star in France), who has a personal vendetta against the bomb-wielding warlord inside.
First-time director Pierre Morel has an interesting resume: cinematographer on like-minded action movies Unleashed and The Transporter and camera operator on Paris-based art-house hits such as Richard Linklater's Before Sunset and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers. And though the plotting is pure, lovable, bullet-ridden, straight-to-video hogwash, Morel's movie has the mix of action and art those credits suggest.
On one wall of the warlord's lair are two posters: one of Bruce Lee and one of Detroit Pistons center Ben Wallace, icons of the human physicality -- speed, strength, agility -- that this movie prizes over special effects and that makes it such a satisfying experience.
In the opening action set-piece, Leïto's apartment is invaded by gangsters. But as they break his door down, he leaps over them, and then we're off: With the film's techno soundtrack pounding away, the film erupts into a sequence of effects-free action ballet; Leïto bouncing off walls, swinging from ceiling pipes, diving (or crashing) through openings and over balconies. He's "a bar of soap" the gangsters tell their boss to explain how they let Leïto slip away.
Based on the pure, kinetic thrills of the action scenes here -- stunts, not computer effects -- you wish Morel would get to direct the next Spider-Man movie and that he could put Belle or Raffaelli in the costume. District B13 is more fun than any Hollywood action movie you're likely to see this summer. It deserves to find the kind of averse-to-subtitles crossover audience that like-minded foreign imports Run Lola Run and Kung Fu Hustle did. Even if you think you don't like foreign-language movies, here's one you should take a chance on.