Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Acclaimed French filmmaker Luc Besson has a knack for recycling material. Nevertheless, he knows how to write riveting action thrillers. “La Femme Nikita,” “The Transporter” trilogy, “Kiss of the Dragon,” “Taken,” “Taken 2,” “Lockout,” ‘The Family,” “Leon: The Professional,” and “Colombian” illustrate his expertise. Besson’s heroes and heroines are stalwart souls who refuse to be intimidated by either formidable foes or odds. Revenge usually lies at the heart of the matter, and the cruel, heartless villains get their just comeuppance by fade-out. Back in 2004, Besson wrote a gripping little actioneer about French ghettos entitled “District B13.” Essentially, “District B13” combined elements of the futuristic Kurt Russell sci-fi saga “Escape from New York” with “48 HRS.” A convict who had murdered a corrupt cop in a fit of rage teams up with an indestructible undercover detective to infiltrate a crime ridden neighborhood. They must retrieve a deadly bomb that has fallen into the hands of desperate drug-dealing criminals who live like warlords. The possibilities for conflict are predictably rampant. “District B13” served not only as the film title, but it also is the setting for all the anarchy. Since law & order never prevailed in the District, Parisian authorities have sealed it off with impressive containment walls that enclose it like a fortress. They are also evacuating their police forces to leave those lawless citizens to their own designs.
Meanwhile, “District B13” gave audiences their first glimpse of stunt man David Belle. Officially, Belle originated Parkour. Parkour is a form of hand-to-hand combat where the combatant exploits his surroundings for maximum advantage. Meaning, our hero searches first to find ways out of a predicament and then fights only when individuals block his escape route. Belle qualifies as a competent enough actor, but his gift for adapting himself to his surroundings so he can elude the villains is extraordinary. Belle performs his outlandish feats with the grace and agility of a youthful Jackie Chan. The character that he portrays is not a professional lawman, criminal, or mercenary. He is just a law-biding citizen seeking justice for others. Later, in 2009, Belle reprised his role in the dynamic sequel “District 13: Ultimatum.” He makes his English-language film debut in editor-turned-director Camille Delamarre’s “Brick Mansions” (** OUT OF ****), with the late Paul Walker as his co-star. Since Belle speaks with a heavy French accent, Vin Diesel dubbed him for American audiences. You’ll have to strain your ears to detect traces of that signature growl that has made Diesel famous. Unfortunately, this lukewarm action thriller is neither half as good as either of the “District B13” nail-biters. Belle upstages Walker in all their combat sequences, and the two actors display little camaraderie. Perhaps the language barrier prevented them from bonding. Presumably, “Brick Mansions” constituted little more than a paycheck movie for Walker between his “Fast and Furious” epics. What is worst is that Besson has rewritten crucial parts of his original “District B13” screenplay for this flawed remake. Essentially, it boils down to a case of fixing something that didn’t require fixing. Indeed, Besson has taken the edge off the action in many instances and packed in the clichés that he didn’t stick in either of the “District” movies.
Basically, freshman director Camille Delamarre and Besson have transplanted the action to Detroit in the year 2018 and their dystopian storyline isn’t a far cry from the urban renewal machinations in the “RoboCop” franchise. The “RoboCop” thrillers occur in Detroit, too. Skyrocketing crime plagues the Motor City, and the Mayor (Bruce Ramsay of “Collateral Damage’) has constructed an impregnable wall around the troubled sector where the police wage a holding action until they can extract themselves. In a sense, “Brick Mansions” resembles “The Purge.” You can do anything you want within this labyrinth of housing projects designated Brick Mansions. Sure, the storyline shares similarities with the latest incarnation of “Dredd,” except skyscrapers run by warlords don’t loom in this woebegone ghetto. African-Americans traffic in drugs like heroin and cocaine, and Tremaine Alexander (Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, a.k.a. RZA of “American Gangster”) is the alpha male of Brick Mansions. The first time we see our hero, Lino (David Belle of “Femme Fatale”); he is destroying a fortune in heroin. Alexander’s gun-toting henchmen swarm into Lino’s apartment complex, but he manages to escape them because he knows every nook and cranny in the place. Later, Alexander’s second-in-command K-2 (Grouchy Boy) comes up with a plan to lure Lino out. They take his ex-girlfriend, Lola (Catalina Denis), as a hostage. Miraculously, Lino breaks into Alexander’s stronghold and rescues Lola. He and she hold Alexander at gunpoint so his ruffians won’t kill them. At the police station, a corrupt cop turns Alexander loose and jails Lino. In “District B13,” the hostage was our hero’s sister. The sister made better sense in the first film than the ex-girlfriend.
While this is going down in Brick Mansions, undercover cop Damien Collier (Paul Walker) has an agenda of his own. His father, who was a decorated cop, died under suspicious circumstances when he plunged into the Brick Mansions. Since then Collier has put Alexander on his short list of suspects who need to pay. The Mayor has been planning to renovate the Brick Mansions when the gangsters steal a deadly bomb. Collier accepts the assignment to retrieve the bomb. He wants more time to acquire intelligence about the Brick Mansions. The Mayor refuses to give him more time. Instead, he pairs him up with Lino. Naturally, the two men don’t trust each other. Worse, the criminals have tampered with the bomb and activated its countdown. Our heroes have less than 24 hours to disarm it. “Brick Mansions” packs enough surprises to make it palatable, but this is pales by comparison with Walker’s “Fast and Furious” franchise, and the shoot’em ups and close-quarters combat are considerably less gritty. “District B13” carried an R-rating, while “Brick Mansions” earned an PG-13 rating. Only hardcore Paul Walker fans will appreciate his second-to-last movie.