The first of Paul Walker’s posthumous pictures is an English-language remake of “Banlieue 13,” aka “District B13,” the 2004 action flick from Luc Besson’s stable that introduced parkour, the “free running” style derived from military training exercises to a wider audience and showcased one of the technique’s founders David Belle. It was admittedly a pretty silly bit of adrenaline-suffused social commentary based on the premise that a section of Paris had become so crime-ridden that the authorities simply sealed it off from the rest of the city, leaving its residents to fend for themselves amid gangs of drug-dealers and other miscreants.
Belle played the district’s “Mr. Clean,” a fellow named Leito who used his skill at loping, leaping, climbing up walls and swinging from roof to roof to fight the criminals within the district. In order to rescue his kidnapped sister from one of the bosses whose operation he’d tried to close down, Leito became the reluctant partner of Damien (Cyril Raffaelli), an honest cop who was sent into the segregated area by the government to retrieve a nuclear weapon that had been stolen by the same crime lord. In a concluding twist, however, the two heroes find that the establishment guys Damien has been serving are even more corrupt than the crooks who control the district.
In reworking the French script he devised with Bibi Naceri for American audiences, Besson has changed the locale from Paris to a dystopian Detroit and B13 to a slew of low-income housing high-rises called Brick Mansions. (The portrait of Motor City painted here is a bit outdated given recent political changes there, but nobody’s going to take the movie for a documentary.) Aside from that, however, the alterations are modest. For some reason Leito’s name is changed to Lino, and his sister Lola becomes an ex-girlfriend of the same name. But all else remains pretty much the same, though Besson’s command of English idiom isn’t always as developed as it might be and his attempts to insert some moments of macho levity into the mix prove awfully feeble (a common Besson failing).
Unfortunately, the second time around for Besson and Belle does not prove the charm. Perhaps because it’s now in English, the narrative comes across as even sillier than it did in 2004, and the action less exhilarating. That could be partially due to the fact that Belle is a decade older, but since his acrobatics remain impressive, a more important reason is probably that we’ve become so accustomed to seeing similarly amazing physical feats in the intervening ten years that they’re no longer quite so astounding. But even more problematic is the style that director Camille Delamarre, a long-time crony of Besson both as a cameraman and a director, has chosen for the string of action scenes—fights, chases (on foot and by car), gun battles and the like—that make up the bulk of the movie, interrupted only as needed for flat-footed exposition. Presumably under his instruction, cinematographer Cristophe Collette favors a jerky, hand-held approach, which—when combined with the hyper editing of Carlo Rizzo and Arthur Tarnowski—leaves Belle’s big set-pieces look rather messy and unclear. That’s a pity, since one would like to observe the parkour as closely as possible.
The same abrasive shoot-and-cut-to-ribbons also affects Walker’s action scenes as gung-ho cop Damien Collier, though the effect is less damaging because one doesn’t expect the same level of gracefulness from him. More generally, he proves a perfectly acceptable replacement for Raffaelli, though his steely, stone-faced persona isn’t very charismatic. The circumstances surrounding the actor’s death might also make one a bit queasy watching scenes in which he’s behind the wheel of speeding vehicles, and certainly it would have been tasteful to remove the line of dialogue that refers to the fact that in the first of them—which ends in the car crashing into a barrier and the guy Damien’s fighting with being hurled through the windshield—his character was exceeding eighty miles an hour.
Otherwise the performances are fairly perfunctory. Catalina Denis is okay as the damsel-in-distress Lola, and she manages the obligatory catfight with the gang’s sultry, dominatrix-clad moll Rayzah (Ayisha Issa, overdoing things extravagantly) decently enough. Hip-hopper RAZ seethes and bellows mightily as drug kingpin Tremaine Alexander, at least until he transforms, rather unconvincingly, into a reasonable spokesman for the common man at the close. Gouchy Boy provides the appropriate mixture of menace and goofiness as Tremaine’s klutzy lieutenant K2, while Robert Maillet growls and poses as the Andre the Giant stand-in Damien and Lino have to take on together.
If you haven’t seen “District B13,” you might find this inferior remake reasonably exciting, although the aggravating visual style makes it a trial to watch. If you have, you’re probably best off sticking with the original, unless the morbid curiosity of seeing one of Walker’s final performances proves irresistible.