The Gonzo District B13 Proves That Parkour Was Good For Something

Illustration for article titled The Gonzo District B13 Proves That Parkour Was Good For Something

Right now, someone, somewhere, is trying to turn Ice Bucket Challenge: The Movie into a thing. That's how it works: These little movements bubble up from nowhere, briefly seize the collective imagination, and then disappear in a ball of smoke before some asshole figures out a way to monetize the thing. But some asshole keeps trying, and that's how all those Lambada movies got made in 1990.


And so, in 2004, around the time the bracing and insane practice of parkour was reaching peak internet saturation, Luc Besson's French B-movie factory figured that maybe they could hang a whole action movie on the stuff. Thankfully, this was the rare case where they were absolutely dead-on right. District B13 is a fast and cheap and dumb and cartoonish dystopian action quickie, one that ends well before the 90-minute mark. And it fucking rules, keeping all the berserk energy of the viral videos and Nike commercials that inspired it while telling a full and compelling (albeit ridiculous) story.

The plot is a fairly bald Escape From New York rewrite, except transformed into a buddy comedy, and with the crucial wrinkle that the Snake Plissken analog already lives in New York and is really good at jumping across rooftops. In the dystopic future of 2010, France has walled off all its ghettos and left its underclass to fend for itself, which means criminal assholes have risen to king status and good citizens have to do whatever they can to keep their buildings safe. The movie stars David Belle, one of the founders of parkour—which more or less means that he's one of the first psychos who said, "Here, film me while I jump over this moving car." In the opening scenes, he goes up against Taha, a local kingpin shithead with a giant mural of his own face painted on his drug-den wall. He fights the good fight, and he ends up in prison, with his sister locked into drugged-up servitude.

Things pick up a few months later when Taha steals a nuclear warhead and a hero cop has to break into this one particular ghetto to get it out. He needs help to get in, and he needs to convince Belle that at least one cop has his best interests at heart. Authority has to come to terms with anti-authoritarian feelings, and two dudes have to jump between a lot of rooftops.

There's a real political undercurrent to all of this. The ruling classes don't give a shit about the people under them, and the only reason they even care about that missing warhead is that maybe Taha will decide to shoot it in the direction of the people with money. (Later on, the social commentary gets even more pointed, and the movie doesn't mind leaving vast, gaping holes in the plot to make its points.)

But even if the movie has things to say, it's unapologetic about being a straight-up vehicle for Belle, a chance to show the absurd things that he can do. And so it contrives to get him in situations where he's leaping through car windows, down staircases, across balconies. It's the rare action movie where the hero does more running than he does fighting, and the many breathless foot-chase scenes are just amazing things to witness. In the stunning three-minute chase scene that more or less opens the movie, we see Belle sliding down drainpipes, careening through closed doors, and pulling off stunts that no human being should be able to land. He did it all himself, without wires or pads, and even with its energetic editing, the movie knows enough to pull back and let you admire the shit he's doing. It's fucking awesome.

And that energy never lets up. Even in expository dialog scenes, dudes are punching each other or pointing guns at each other. Belle's cop buddy Cyril Raffaelli, best known over here as "bad guy who jumps across fire escapes" in Live Free or Die Hard, makes his entrance in an incredibly goofy and fun casino fight. Later on, he has to fight some guys while he's got a steering wheel chained to his arm. For all the clumsiness of the movie's plot mechanics, it's inventive as hell in putting Belle and Raffaelli in impossible situations and then letting them fight (or parkour) their way out.


The movie's characters are all blockily drawn cartoons, but they're fun cartoons. Belle's sister is a plucky dynamo who crams her underwear in the mouth of a catcalling thug. Drug kingpin Taha is a flamboyant, silk-shirted mustache-twirler who spends entire scenes with cocaine caked across his cheek. (Bibi Narceri, who plays Taha, co-wrote the movie with Luc Besson, and he gave himself plenty of good lines.) There's a hulking but hapless drug-gang enforcer named K2 who has his name shaved into the back of his enormous head, who gets to snap a neck in his first scene but proves utterly incapable from then on. Jeff Rudom, the late bearded giant who beat up George Clooney for show in Oceans 11, turns up as a final-boss bad guy named Yeti. These people aren't remotely believable, but they're not boring, either.

Besson has all-time hero status for directing The Professional, but in more recent years, his greatest contribution has been to crank out a production line of fun and dumb B-movies just like this. In the past few years, his contributions include wonderful trash like the Liam Neeson action-hero reawakening Taken and the brilliant Guy Pearce space-jail cartoon Lockout. (Indeed, District B13's hired-hand director Pierre Morel got to go on to helm Taken.) Lucy, the Scarlett Johannsen-becomes-God thriller Besson just directed, is probably the trippiest, most stoner-friendly attempt at a summer blockbuster anyone has made in the past 30 years, but even that has a bloodthirsty Chinese drug gang who could've been straight out of District B13. Even when Besson tries to get pretentious, he gives us wonderful hammerhead bullshit.


Besson also produced District B13: Ultimatum, a 2009 sequel that's just as dumb and almost as fun as the original. (That's on Netflix, too, and if you plan things right, you can back-to-back both of them before your buzz wears off.) And he helped make Brick Mansions, the English-language remake that came out earlier this year, with Belle reprising his role and the late Paul Walker standing in for Raffaelli.

Brick Mansions is a very faithful remake—even some of the stunts are recreated—and it's got the added benefit of RZA in an over-the-top villain role. But the movie isn't made with the same balls-out confidence, and it's hard to watch Walker doing fast/furious car-chase stuff; the movie never lets you forget that it's the last movie he finished before his car-chase death. Brick Mansions was a good-enough piece of pre-summer crap. District B13, meanwhile, is transcendent crap, and I can't recommend it highly enough.


Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice,GQ, Grantland, and The Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.


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