Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Feb 07, 2010 6:53 pm 
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Good cop/bad cop

In the same weekend two action movies opened, both set in Paris, in different styles, but with a special kinship. This begins with parkour, the French extreme sport technique for scaling and jumping between buildings, landing on rooftops, and grabbing onto ledges the way acrobats catch each others' arms or a swing, only using hard, unyielding surfaces as if they were soft. Parkour is a hip-hop spelling of the French word parcours, which means (as a verb) to cover distance or move all over town, and (as a noun) path or passage or, in life, career. A combination of acrobatics, improvisation, and bone-crushing resilience, parkour is a jaw-dropping way to stage chases and escapes. So it can now be found in Hollywood and Asian movies as well as French ones. And the way it makes fantasy real has led to its presence in graphic novels, video games (14 are listed in French Wikipedia), even a Madonna show. District 13: Ultimatum is a sequel, or more properly a sort of remake, of the 2004 French movie District 13. Both feature David Belle, one of the inventors of parkour (or at least a close friend of the inventors) as an undercover cop and ex-thug who turns into a hero of the people.

In French the titles' word "district" is "banlieue," and it refers to the complexes of public housing that rim Paris and other French cities. The "banlieue" means poverty and alienation, because these neighborhoods consist of big buildings filled with poor foreigners and disaffected youth and are hotbeds of rebellion. In both "District 13" movies the "banlieue" so numbered has been walled off, like the Palestinians in the occupied territories, and the inhabitants have turned to their own raucous self-rule. Outside, in both these films, evil elements as high up as the office of the President of the Republic are plotting to exterminate the inhabitants of this fiery uber-ghetto, demolish the shabby high-rises, and replace them with profitable luxury housing. Leïto, David Belle's character, collaborates in both films with the gnarly, shaven-headed Capt. Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli) to expose the bad guy and save the "banlieue." Leïto and Tomaso are secular, democratic heroes: Tomaso says his Bible is the French constitution.

The changes from the first and second District 13's are various. The action has been pumped up, the music is louder, and the dialogue is less interesting. There's more hand-to-hand combat in kung fu style, choreographed by Raffaelli. The first one was better: isn't everything fresher the first time? But Ultimatum is okay. It was directed by a new guy, Patrick Alessandrin. District 13, the original version, was directed by Pierre Morel. And Morel is the director of the John Travolta vehicle, From Paris with Love -- the title obviously a homage to the early James Bond flicks.

The use of the Paris banlieue as a setting for a gang violence movie goes back to Jean-François Richet's controversial 1997 movie, Ma 6-T va crack-er (slang, and hip-hop spelling, for "my hood's gonna explode"), not available or shown in the US or, apparently, much reviewed in France. Its depiction of ghetto rage may owe something to the more intimate study of Parisian outsider anger, Matthieu Kassovitz's 1995 La haine (Hate). It's interesting to compare Richet's "parcours" (the path he has followed) to Morel's. Richet went on to hone his action-movie skills with a very creditable 2005 Hollywood remake of John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 (there's that number 13 again). But he returned to France and last year brought out the amazing gangster biopic diptych Mesrine, in two full-length feature parts, which justifiably won a ton of French Césars and other awards and includes an amazing performance by Vincent Cassel as villain hero Jacques Mesrine. Caseel had a notable early role in Kassovitz's La haine. It's a pity the two Mesrine films have not gotten anything but very limited US release, but its two-part format limits its commercial viability.

Pierre Morel, on the other hand, went from District 13 to the $25 million Taken, an ultra violent, hokey actioner about a former spy, played by Liam Neeson, who revives his skills to save his daughter from being kidnapped into a white slave trade involving evil Arabs. And now, at double the budget, he has produced a retro-style movie about a rogue CIA special ops heavy called Charlie Wax (Travolta, with shaved head and mustaches), who comes to Paris to kill a lot of coke trafficking Asians, team up with Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and save a lot of high ranking First World leaders from a suicide bomber who improbably not only was Rhys Meyers' girlfriend, but makes it into the American Embassy in Paris for a big reception with explosives packed around her pretty chest. She has used his pass (did they think her name was "James Reese"?) and yet was dressed in the same peculiar evil-monk orange hooded getup as eight or ten other women. Along the way, this movie ends up in the "banlieue" again: “In Paris, I thought the shitholes would be nicer," Charlie Wax says. Travolta's character is an improbable, jokey hero, a dirty-talking oaf who makes love to his weapons, snorts coke, and refers to the artificiality of his ultra-violent sequences. “I just gave you a Shaw Brothers Kung Fu Show,” he says to Reese after slaughtering a banquet hall full of Asians. The movie also offers Travolta self-satire, though his consuming several "Royales with cheese" hardly constitutes a return to the charm and wit of his Pulp Fiction turn. Charlie Wax remains an oaf, and his lesson to Reese that international terrorism is a tough business hardly seems helpful, though it might have appealed to Dick Cheney. There's some parkour in From Paris, but it gets lost in the mad rush, which does, admittedly, include the best car chase sequence money can buy, in which Wax takes out a Pakistani bad guy from the window of an Audi with a bazooka.

The evil mastermind behind both the District 13 movies and From Paris with Love is the Euro-trash producer-writer-director Luc Besson. Besson has 87 producing credits, 40 writing credits, and 14 directing credits. It's obvious he has become a major producer of cross-over efforts which it's hard to characterize, since they include beautiful films like the Depardieu vehicle The Singer, two Transporter movies (which have parkour sequences), the crack French thriller (from an American novel) Tell No One. He directed the interesting but too long The Big Blue (his biggest success in France), the minor cult film La Femme Nikita, and the history flop The Story of Joan of Arc. He wrote the story or screenplay for both District films and From Russia with Love and he produced them all. Besson greases the wheels for a lot of movie making; some of it's good, some not. Neither of these new movies is a masterpiece, but From Paris is slick, violent drivel that inflates Travolta while debasing him. Rhys Meyers, doing a good American accent, saves his honor by never quite approving of his crude temporary boss. Ultimatum is another reasonable attempt to produce a vernacular French action flick with ties to the common people.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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