Sunday, September 11, 2005

TIFF 2005: "BANLIEUE 13" (Review)

(Midnight Madness) France, 85 minutes
Written by: Luc Besson & Luc Besson, Bibi Naceri
Directed by: Pierre Morel
Cast: Cyril Raffaelli, David Belle, Tony D'Amario, Bibi Naceri, Dany Verissimo

From the news-to-me department: in France, they have this thing called parkour, an urban freestyle sport in which participants ("traceurs", or "free runners") navigate various obstacles (railings, staircases, buildings) with amazing speeds and acrobatics without pauses or breaks. It combines the skill of martial arts with the aesthetic grace of dance and is for many a way of life. David Belle is one of the recent sport's true titans (his father invented it)--seeing this man in action makes you believe--if not a man can fly--then at least he can willfully defy gravity and control speed and time like Mike Jitlov. "Banlieu 13" was clearly created to exploit Belle's talents, but this thriller, thankfully, is more than just a foreign-language version of "Gymkata".

In the Paris of 2010, the city’s elite ruling class has been protected from the ghettos by a network of protective walls, with the only law enforcement stationed outside the anarchy-ridden slums at armed checkpoints. Inside the northern suburb's District 13, Taha (co-writer Naceri) rules as kingpin and chief supplier of drugs and illegal arms. After his goons raid an armored truck, he comes in possession of a neutron bomb (a plot device probably last used in "The New Avengers"), which accidentally become triggered to detonate within 24 hours.

Damien (frequent Besson stuntman Raffaelli), an undercover cop, pairs up with the district's agile avenger Leïto (Belle), who has made an enemy in Taha by destroying one of his drug hauls. For that, Taha turned Leito over to crooked cops and took his sister hostage. With his own score to be settled, Leito agrees to re-enter the concrete hellhole to free his sister and help Damien retrieve the bomb.

Luc Besson's latest martial arts side project following "Kiss Of The Dragon", "Unleashed", and two "Transporter" films--assuming he plans to direct again at all (the IMDB lists sixteen upcoming films as producer!)--owes an obvious conceptual debt to John Carpenter's "Escape From New York" (and the district's number is a likely a nod to "Assault On Precinct 13"), with the Snake Plissken character divvied up between the requisite mismatched duo. For some, this won't sound too promising, but if you're an action buff, just wait until you see this thing m-o-v-e. This one's an adrenaline shot of celluloid that brandishes its simplicity on its tattooed forearm like a badge of pride. At a short n' sweet 85 minutes, it's an ever flip-flopping pas de deux of amazing airborne ballets and cracking limbs without a flash frame of CGI or wirework.

Cinematographer-turned-director Pierre Morel (another Besson alumnus) wisely keeps his auteurist flourishes to a minimum and the production design rooted in reality--the most fantastical elements of this sci-fi fable are its two nimble leads. Still, he can't resist the impulse to work in some heavy-handed speechifying during the coda. Damien's vow to bring down the walls isn't quite the Tom Joad/"Grapes Of Wrath" speech Besson and Naceri might have intended, but when was the last time you saw Henry Fonda scale a 20 story building with his bare hands?

Robert J. Lewis