Strangely, one of the best action movies I've seen in some time, District B13, was made in France, by French people, using the native language of those people and that country (French!).
But in spite of its Frenchness, District B13 doesn't work by being more intellectual than the average action film. No, it's as stupid, in its way, as the genre itself.
What's great about it are the choices that first-time director Pierre Morel and 32nd-time writer Luc Besson made in putting this film together. First of all, it bucks the trend of action films by being less than three hours long. In fact, it's 95 minutes less than three hours. Even better, the action is real. The actors are the stuntmen, and there's no CGI or wire-fu. What you see is what you get, and it's amazing how much more thrilling it is to watch a man jump across rooftops than it is to watch a computer-animated simulacrum of a man do the same. There's a real sense of danger, which is completely lost in high-tech filmmaking.
But perhaps most importantly, the film actually unfolds its story throughout its length and saves real, unexpected surprises for the very end.
See, the standard formula for an action film (by the way, I've explained this before, so if you're a longtime reader, you might want to skip to the end of the review, put down the paper, go out and gather those dearest to you, and then, because life is fleeting, tell them how deeply you feel for them) is as follows: The film starts with a 15-minute action sequence. Then there's a 5- to 10-minute talking-heads sequence where it is explained, in boring, expository dialogue, that object or person X is at location Y, and that the hero must fight his way through an army of disposable nonentities to arrive there and claim or destroy X. Then the rest of the film is just a long fight sequence with a foregone conclusion. Yawn!
District B13 works like this: There's a very elaborate opening sequence that, while action-packed, is also information-rich. Then the scene shifts to another, seemingly unrelated action sequence, then a brief expository sequence, then more action and clues and mystery and a twist. Hurrah!
David Belle stars as Leïto, a man who has lived his whole life in the titular District B13. B13 is so crime-ridden that no one there gets an education or does anything but sell drugs and wear gangsta clothing and play with guns. So it's like a little piece of America stuck in the middle of France. While everyone around him is getting high and dressing like a suburban white boy who just bought his first 50 Cent album, Leïto cleans up graffiti and bedevils the local crime lord by destroying his drugs, killing his thugs and, I don't know, cleaning his rugs.
Cyril Raffaelli co-stars as Damien, a cop with a heart made of some sort of precious metal, probably ruthenium or osmium or possibly gold. Damien is assigned to team up with Leïto in order to bring justice and/or nuclear death to the evil residents of B13.
As actors, both Raffaelli and Belle are perfectly suited to the genre, which is to say they each have one facial expression, and it's totally cool. But much more importantly, they're both masters of parkour, which is the most impressive sport ever invented by French people (and keep in mind, the French invented tennis, savate and oral lovemaking). Parkour is a combination of running, climbing and gymnastics that involves hurtling over and through urban landscapes, scaling up and down the sides of buildings, and sliding through railings, windows, alleyways, international atomic treaties and topless supermodels--basically, the sorts of things that the French do so well, when they feel like it.
Watching these two masters go at it is painfully fun. Director Morel is a longtime cinematographer, and so he knows exactly how to frame, shoot and edit a fight sequence. Making proper use of wide shots, Morel keeps the flow of the action crystal-clear. For my money, that's paramount in shooting a fight scene or chase, and it's something that many arty young directors forget when they're zooming in for a slo-mo close-up in the middle of a melee.
Ultimately, B13 is a bit dopey, but that's an expected part of the genre. Its plot, which centers on a kidnapped sister and a missing neutron bomb, is standard, and even the double-twist secret-surprise ending is well-traveled ground.
But this is good action, with such beautiful stunts and well-paced plotting that you'll soon forget that you're reading the dialogue. Indeed, after watching David Belle leap across a dozen rooftops and then drop two stories to the ground and keep running, I found myself shouting "Vive la France, le pays vrai du action!"