District B13 (Banlieue 13) (2004)

Luc Besson’s latest film from France, District B13, budgeted at an estimated €12,000,000 (US$15,400,000), as compared to Mission: Impossible III budgeted at ten times that amount, certainly delivers more bang for the investors’ buck, or Euros, as it were. It may not have Tom Cruise (not a big loss), and it is surely less slick in production values than MI III, but District B13 delivers a cogent, well-told story, with a bit of social significance underpinning, plus a series of sequences that should satisfy the action fans.

Set in 2010, the authorities have built walls around the high rise ghettoes of Paris, abandoning responsibility of law enforcement and leaving the resident gangs as masters of the turf. Shots running behind the main titles set the tone for life in the ghettoes–rats, trash, drugs, graffiti, street filth.

Two gang leaders are in conflict over a drug deal. Taha (Bibi Naceri) is a coke-addicted sadist who will gun down even his own men if he is not satisfied with the performance of their duties. Leito (David Belle), buffed and tattooed, is trying to run his turf with a modicum of civilization, although, in this lawless world, he is no goody-two-shoes, either. Taha has his henchmenkidnap Leito’s sister (Dany Verissimo) as a way of getting what he wants from Leito, leading to an early action scene. Credibility is stretched as they escape through a barrage of machine gun fire without suffering a scratch. Leito captures Taha and delivers him to the police, but the police double-cross him and it is he, Leito, who ends up in jail.

Damien Tomasso (Cyril Raffaelli) is a member of the police elite task force. When a weapon of mass destruction is hijacked by Taha’s gang, Damien recruits Leito to assist in getting the bomb defused. Leito has little choice; it’s his ticket out of jail. Together, they go after Taha, the bomb, and Leito’s recaptured sister who has been drugged and turned into a sex slave for Taha. Damien and Leito are in conflict about how to resolve things, leading to a fine (if not entirely surprising) plot twist towards the end.

The action sequences here consist of either wild chases across Paris rooftops or fight scenes among the gangs. They are well-executed with an assortment of leaps and flying clearly influenced by Hong Kong action films. Suspension of disbelief is essential, as the escapes against overwhelming odds are implausible, but that seems to be par for the course for the genre.

The commercial issue, of course, is whether action fans will go to a sub-titled movie and whether fans of foreign movies are interested in action films. For an hour and a half of fast, sheer escapism, District NB13 might stand a chance.

Arthur Lazere

San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.