Reviewed by Sam Hatch
AS THIS IS PART OF A YEAR-END DISCUSSION AS OPPOSED TO A TRADITIONAL REVIEW, THERE MAY BE SPOILERS PRESENT IN THE TEXT.
Luc Besson apparently grew tired of his job as a feature director (I'm a big fan of both his Leon and The Fifth Element) and has been dabbling in producing and writing for the past ten years or so. Most of this ancillary work still has his style stamped all over it, and he has found a few other French directors such as Gerard Krawczyk and this film's Pierre Morel to do most of the dirty work while he drafts up loads of simpleminded action films. In the States this has amounted to the Transporter series and Jet Li features Kiss of the Dragon and Unleashed (aka Danny The Dog). In France this has yielded the lucrative comedy/action Taxi series, Jean Reno's Wasabi, and a little seen spin on the Robin Hood template titled Yamakasi.
Yamakasi was the end result of Besson's introduction to a group of Parisian athletes who invented a new sport called Parkour. Parkouristes, or traceurs (or free runners) are dedicated to using urban landscapes much in the same way as skateboarders, except they do their extreme maneuvers without any external equipment. They use their bodies to do things that literally look impossible, and can jump from rooftops without shattering their kneecaps somehow. Climbing walls, flying through tiny gaps, bouncing down stairwells at a feverish pitch, these guys can do anything with just the sneakers on their feet and a little imagination. They take the movements of a Jackie Chan and bring it to a whole new level, not to mention infusing it with a philosophical purpose along the way.
Hardcore purveyors of the sport were critical of Yamakasi, which was seen as the sport selling out in a fashion. There was a very punk-rockish grass roots ethos behind the movement, and differing opinions about where the sport should go caused the two gentlemen who created it to part ways. Sebastian Foucan (who can be seen as Mollaka the bombmaker in the blisteringly quick opening chase in Casino Royale) favored 'Free Running', a style-free sport focusing on getting from point A to B as efficiently and gracefully as possible. Parkour is similar, yet tolerates showy maneuvers and acrobatic tricks if the participant is so inclined. Foucan's ex-partner David Belle embraced the latter, and co-stars in Banlieue 13 (known as District B13 in the States) as Leito, a concerned citizen in a futuristic French ghetto, trying to keep his apartment complex drug free.
The local kingpin Taha (Bibi Naceri, brother of Taxi star Samuel Naceri) is constantly bothered by Leito's reluctance to embrace graft, and sends his team of Fast and the Furious wannabes over to convince him otherwise. Taha's men are led by K-2 (Tony D'Amario), a lumbering giant reminiscent of an even huger version of Vinnie Jones, who sports his name shaved on the back of his head and takes the elevator while his men are forced to run up the stairs. The introductory scene is very similar to the opening of Leon (aka The Professional), but breaks off into new ground once Leito is forced to hoof it out of the high rise. The ensuing chase scenes are pure jaw-dropping spectacle, and put most action movies to shame. It has been accused of blowing its wad too early, and indeed the first set piece is by far the best of the film, but it is still very much worth sticking with.
After the initial embroilment in which Leito flushes away a ton of Taha's heroin, the latter character decides to abduct Leito's spunky sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) and keep her as his doped up slave. The police are no help in the matter, as they seem to be closing up shop in an effort to evacuate the walled city as soon as possible. Soon, Leito finds himself in jail, and is paired up with an undercover cop Damien, played by Cyril Raffaelli. Raffaelli is a respected martial artist in his own right, and one scene in which he destroys an underground casino whilst taking on a Columbian drug-lord's henchmen is amazing. Mostly because he has staged the stunts himself, and no wirework is used whatsoever.
The success of that bust leads Damien's superiors to consider him for a dangerous job that entails sneaking within the walls of Banlieue 13 and finding a nuclear warhead that has fallen into the hands of none other than Taha. Damien poses as a fellow criminal to gain Leito's trust, as the latter is a Snake Plissken-esque character with an intimate knowledge of the city. The action keeps coming (albeit in smaller doses), but there are still plenty of moments towards the final act where you can't believe what you're seeing.The film looks great, and like most French Besson productions, is fueled by an aggressive hip-hop soundtrack that really fits the mood. Banlieue 13 makes my list just for the sheer adrenaline rush it induces, and joins the likes of this year's Crank as a guilty pleasure without too much of the guilt.