Wednesday, July 19, 2006

District 13

I could, I suppose, go and see Superman Returns or Pirates of the Caribbean 2, but I honestly don't care about either of them. So instead, I went to see the gloriously stupid District 13, on the grounds that it's French, and therefore must be cleverer. (Before anyone asks, yes, this is the same film that was released in America as District B13. Obviously, I'm working with the subtitled edition, because dubbing is an abomination.)

Cinemas tend to work on a theory that anything in a foreign language must be arthouse. This is breaking down to a degree - Goodbye Lenin got a full-scale UK release despite being in German, and my local multiplex has a curious fondness for South Korean horror movies. Even so, District 13 ended up showing in the Filmhouse, Edinburgh's leading arthouse cinema, despite being the least arthouse thing imaginable.

How un-arthouse is this film? Well, the IMDB's plot outline starts like this: "Set in the ghettos of Paris in 2010, an undercover cop and an ex-thug try to infiltrate a gang in order to defuse a neutron bomb." That's exactly how arthouse it is.

But the plot isn't the point. In fact, for most of the film, the plot is refreshingly absent. This is a film starring David Belle, one of the inventors of parkour - the noble French art of jumping around buildings and public spaces in an implausibly agile way, sometimes awkwardly translated into English as "free running." It's wonderfully visual stuff, and not surprisingly, the BBC has made a couple of attempts to televise it in the past.

Unfortunately, the result of that was the painfully awkward films Jump London and Jump Britain, which attempted to show nice French people running around national landmarks. If you haven't seen them, don't bother. The director can't seem to grasp the idea that rapid cutting undermines the flow of the performance, and much of it consists of people bouncing around rather dull spaces that don't give them much to do - but hey, they're famous dull spaces.

Luc Besson, who produced and co-wrote this film, has a better idea. David Belle is an insanely agile man. He's a charismatic guy, and a decent enough actor. And he knows a bit of martial arts. So you put him in an action movie and have him do his own stunts. It's not brain surgery.

The appeal of good old-fashioned stunt work has fallen by the wayside in Hollywood, even when they attempt a martial arts film. District 13 is a classic example of what we're missing. Belle, and co-star Cyril Raffaelli, bounce around the screen in suitably ludicrous fashion and do ridiculously impressive things. We, the audience, are suitably astounded. And the film clocks in at 89 minutes, before any of that wears off. There's your evening's entertainment. Director Pierre Morel has a better grasp of how to shoot this material than the BBC did. Yes, the camerawork is flashy, but he understands the most important thing - let the stunt work speak for itself, and don't chop it up.

Of course, genre expectations mean that there has to be some sort of plot. Besson has duly provided some sort of plot. It comes in near the end, slows the film down, and generally reads like it might have filled out an episode of Tharg's Future Shocks. It falls apart under any consideration at all, and the finale is absurdly contrived. None of this really matters, because it does the job of keeping the action moving, and you probably won't bother thinking about it in much detail afterwards. There's a bit of political ranting about abandonment of the ghettos by the ruling classes, which is theoretically the big idea, but it only lasts about 90 seconds and feels like it was only included because they thought the story ought to go through the motions of having a point.

Most of the film just ignores the plot entirely - the majority of the running time is devoted to introducing the characters and allowing them to show off, which is just as it should be, before the story arrives and things get a little bogged down by comparison. If you can fault the film, it's for the final act, which has too much plot and too little fighting - or rather, doesn't quite reach the same spectacular heights as earlier action sequences.

It's a ridiculously silly film, of course - it's even got a B-movie villain who shoots his henchmen for bringing bad news - but that's beside the point. The story is just an excuse for some good action sequences. And the action sequences are incredibly good.