Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sun Jun 11, 2006 10:02 pm 
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Dramatizing the new art of parkour: French ghetto ninjas make good

Another violent banlieue movie has arrived from France, two years from its home release. The French have their own very special ways of copying us that produce quite different results, but may tempt American fans of ultraviolence to brave subtitles. Pierre Morel, the director, follows in the wake of Jean-François Richet, who made the "revolutionary" Ma 6-T va crack-er, and this new title's use of the number 13 may be a homage to Richet's recent remake of Carpenter's Assault on District you-know-which. This time the format perfectly mimics violent American-Asian kung fu actioners, but there are exhilarating CGI-free displays of the new art of inner city architecture-defying movement called parkour, and the plot has a different message, quite bluntly tuned to the social unrest that troubles the region of Paris.

The time is 2010, and the problems that happened outside the environs of Paris last fall have arrived at such a point that the authorities have constructed walls around various outer cité districts, like the Israeli wall cutting off the Palestinian territories. There are two kinds of hero in District B13 (the French title is simply Banlieue 13) and two classes of villains: there is the young working-class hero, Leïto (David Belle), who sabotages the local villain, a drug kingpin named Taha (Bibi Naceri; he's an insider; he has an Arab name and his no. 1 thug K2 -- Tony D'Amario -- has an Arab pun name: K2 sounds like "Qader" in French pronunciation). Only the working-class hero has never worked, because as in the US, ghetto youths can't get jobs. He has a sexy little sister, Lola (Dany Verissimo), who becomes a victim and hostage, but turns out to be as tough as any of the guys. The schools have been closed in B13, and the last police outpost is closing. And there is the police hero, also young and tough, supercop Damien (Cyril Raffaeli) who is sent in as a stooge of the biggest villains, the French higher police authorities, who have decided to wipe B13 off the map and get Leïto and Damien unknowingly to team up to facilitate this process. Only while sparring throughout the movie Leïto and Damien wind up on the same team, exposing the criminal conspiracy of the government honchos in the middle of Paris to wipe out the whole ghetto. And like the good hero of the people that he is, Leïto parts friends with Damien and chooses to eschew big rewards and return to live in the slum where he grew up.

As the film ends, the crooked police honcho has been exposed and deposed, parliament has passed new laws, and B13 is getting its schools and police protection back. Parkour by the way is a sport that involves dazzling displays of improvised jumping from rooftop to rooftop and balcony to balcony and swinging from anything that will get you from point A to point B, and Errol Flynn must be spinning in his grave with envy.

Like most French actioners, this one is school of Luc Besson, which fans of traditional drawing room comedy, movies about cute little French boys and girls and polars noirs type crime movies may justifiably consider a wretched influence. But the French show here, not for the first time, that they can do the choreography of violence in ways that are as glorious and fluid as anything out of Hong Kong or Hollywood, and it all feels fresher and more energetic here. Besson is a co-writer of the movie along with the guy who plays Taha, and Morel has previously done the cinematography for Hong-Kong based films produced by Besson. But it's important to notice that this plot is a far cry from the Fast and Furious franchise. Its politics may be simplistic but they're up to date and sincerely populist. And Raffaeli is a fantastic stuntman while David Belle is one of the inventors of parkour. Watching them together is as good as seeing Tony Jaa in Ong-bak.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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