Imagine the most rousingly berserk bits of “Dirty Harry,” “Kung Fu Hustle,” “The Matrix,” the Indiana Jones films and “Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior” all rolled up into one big skull-flattening action movie. Now imagine it with subtitles. Voila: “District B13″ — a movie in French, it’s true, but one that really speaks the international language of brilliantly choreographed mayhem.
The story is set in 2010, in the grim banlieues outside of Paris — the gang-infested suburban housing projects that even today are so dangerous that police are disinclined to set foot or squad-car anywhere near them. Four years into the future, these horrific districts have grown so ungovernable that the authorities have simply given up and sealed them off behind walls and barricades, leaving vicious drug lords and their private thug armies to wreak havoc within.
Only two men find this situation unacceptable and are willing to do something about it. One of them, Leïto (David Belle), born and raised in the nightmarish District B13, fights a daily battle to keep drugs and gangsters out of his apartment building. The other, Damien (Cyril Raffaelli), apparently the only cop in Paris who’s not in cahoots with either the drug lords or corrupt city officials, still believes it’s possible to tame the lawless district. When one of the worst of the gang chieftains, a man named Taha (Bibi Naceri) steals a nuclear weapon from a government ordnance truck — and kidnaps Leïto’s sister, too — Damien and Leïto team up to kick a few hundred tons of bad-guy butt.
Like “Ong-Bak,” the beauty of “District B13″ is in the meticulous planning that went into its elaborate action scenes, and the refreshing lack of digital effects — the sometimes-astonishing physical feats are real. (One scene, in which Leïto leaps up from the floor and sails feet-first through a doortop transom that can’t be more than 18 inches high, is simply breathtaking.) Much of the credit for this must go to the movie’s two leads. Cyril Raffaeli is a one-time circus acrobat, an awesomely skilled martial-arts pro and a top French movie stuntman. David Belle is the inventor of something called Parkour, an “urban running” discipline that apparently facilitates an ability to go vaulting over the tops of cars and scampering up the sides of buildings. For the purposes of the movie, it helps that both of them are good-looking guys (Raffaeli could be a skinhead version of the late Jean-Paul Belmondo; Belle resembles the young Robert De Niro), and that their acting skills are more than adequate.
Working with these two appealing stars, and a large supporting cast filled with stuntmen, boxers and apparently every conceivable species of martial-arts expert, the first-time director, Pierre Morel (better-known as a cinematographer — he shot last year’s Jet Li epic, “Unleashed”), creates scenes of pure kinetic flow, with the action barreling forward in a torrent of bullets and flames and flying car parts. Morel is obviously a student of the form, but he’s a talented one. And so while the sequence in which Damien breaks out of the back of a speeding prison van, crawls up along the top of it, swings down into the cab and cold-cocks the driver is clearly derived from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and a hell-bent chase across multi-level rooftops unabashedly echoes “The Matrix,” they’re still thrilling — and the thrills feel fresh.
“District B13″ could be the action movie to beat this year; we’ll see if any other director comes close to equaling its delirious rush. The picture is 85 minutes long and it blows past you like a hurricane. Check it out, and hold on.
“Mouth to Mouth”: Road Rules
Writer-director Alison Murray’s first feature has the look of a ’70s movie (it was shot in high-definition 16mm, then blown up to 35mm), and it feels like the ’70s, too, even though it’s set in the present. It’s about a group of young drop-outs, led by a charismatic older man, who wander around Europe in a van, feeding the homeless, taking in drug burn-outs and castigating the straight world for its failure to care. For these people, their little community is everything that that world should be, but never is. Then they start to notice the ugly dynamic at work beneath their own group’s utopian surface.
This peripatetic collective is called SPARK — Street People Armed with Radical Knowledge — and the recruiting spiel its top members lay on the potential converts they encounter in their travels is hard for a certain sort of youthful idealist to resist, or at least to disagree with. One of them, approaching a rebellious, pill-popping, booze-swilling young drifter named Sherry (Ellen Page, of “Hard Candy” and the new “X-Men” movie), asks her simply, “Do you believe in freedom?” There’s only one answer to this fatuous question, and Sherry soon finds herself climbing aboard the van.
She quickly bonds with the group’s other members, especially a lovable goof called Mad Ax (Maxwell McCabe Lokos) and an asthmatic, semi-reformed party girl named Nancy (Beatrice Brown). The van pulls out of Berlin and makes its way south, heading down to Portugal for a big techno festival. This turns out to be a lot of fun. But when the group settles into an abandoned vineyard to do some communal living for real, things begin to get nasty very quickly.
Anyone who’s ever been around, or in, one of these disaffected bands will recognize SPARK’s leader, Harry (Eric Thal), as a distinct type. He’s an intense, messianic, unstable man who looks to be about 40 and who walks around shirtless at all times, alternating honeyed words of idealistic encouragement to his charges with harsh demands for their unquestioning loyalty to the group. Harry is a fount of ever-proliferating rules, decreeing that none of the group members can have sex with one another, or even drink the wine they find at the vineyard. He also orchestrates group “punishments” for transgressors. After secretly having sex with one of the young girls, for example, Harry angrily singles her out for humiliation in front of the other members.
“You came to me for attention,” he coldly announces. “You broke a rule, and you made me break a rule, too.” One of Harry’s lieutenants instantly calls for a show of hands: “Who thinks bad girls should be punished?”
One of the story’s most distressing developments is the arrival on the scene of Sherry’s mother, Laurie (Natasha Wightman, the doomed lesbian in “V for Vendetta”). Laurie has come to pry her daughter away from the group and take her back to their well-to-do life in London. Sherry refuses to go, though, so mom — who was a dilettante hippie herself back in the 1970s — hangs around, observing. She starts getting her old groove back, and is soon seduced by the seeming “freedom” of the group’s lifestyle; before long she’s skinny-dipping with the other members. Sherry is appalled by this, and after one last, particularly horrible “punishment,” she realizes she has to make a break for real freedom.
“Mouth to Mouth” casts a cool eye on this sort of “communal” youth group, and the predatory leaders who inevitably dominate them. (Who is Harry? And is bullying these lost kids really all he has to show for his life as he enters middle age?) The movie is also a perceptive examination of a child’s alarm at realizing that she can’t rely on a parent who’s never really grown up herself, and who is in fact more lost than she is.
Director Murray is also a choreographer, and she has shoe-horned two interpretive-dance sequences into the film that have no business being there — they’re ridiculous, and they sideswipe the narrative. But the picture otherwise manages to be soberly observant without short-changing the real camaraderie the group members feel for one another and the giddy good times they sometimes have together. Sherry and her friends sincerely want to change the world. But since people like Harry and Laurie are an eternal part of its problem, this project may prove more difficult than they ever imagined.
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