June 15, 2006

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District B-13 (R)
The French endear themselves to the world by giving us an entertaining action movie full of cool fight scenes and likeable heroes with District B-13, a movie set in the not-too-distant future Paris.

And the fact that the subtitles don’t always get the slang right just makes the film that much more enjoyable.

But really what does language matter when most of your movie involves two ridiculously athletic men dodging bullets and jumping from roof-top to roof-top?

Leito (David Belle) lives in district B-13, a walled off ghetto in Paris. Though the area is run by drug dealers and other hoodlums, Leito stands out as a vigilante for the everyman (like Batman but French and in a tank top instead of the bat costume). The beginning of the movie sees him dumping the local gang boss’s drugs down the drain. When the boss, Taha (Bibi Naceri), finds out his drugs are gone, he kidnaps Leito’s sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) with plans to hold her for ransom. The siblings turn the tables on Taha and almost get away, taking him to the police with enough evidence to prosecute. Instead the police officer in charge, unwilling to pick a fight with Taha’s men as the police prepare to leave the ghetto, throws Leito in a cell and lets Taha escape with Lola. Leito responds in a very unBatman-like way and ends up in jail.

Six months later, police detective Damien (Cyril Raffaelli), a man of butt-kicking abilities similar to Leito’s, is charged with heading into B-13 to stop Taha from selling a bomb he hijacked from the government. The bomb, the government officials say, could wipe out a chunk of the city if Damien doesn’t diffuse it. Damien says he can’t infiltrate the criminal world of B-13 in the limited amount of time he has. The police offer Leito up as his guide.

The unlikely-buddies set-up and the entertainingly flamboyant Taha seem like very Hollywood elements but they work better than any big budget action movie in a long while (the plot has some similarities to movies like 16 Blocks but none of that film’s problems). The dialogue we get might be simplistic (I sense that quite a bit of clever is lost in translation) but it isn’t ponderous, flat or cookie cutter. The action stars aren’t on the cover of People but they are attractive, sparkling personalities nonetheless and perform their stunts with enough believability that we don’t waste time looking for the strings.

Though this movie is currently stuck in an art-movie/foreign-film limited release, it’s swashbuckling adventure story should take it deep into mainstream popcorn movie territory. B+


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