White Man Can Jump
And Scale Sheer Walls And Damn Near Fly Through The Air In This Absurd French Action Flick
If you’ve ever sat around pondering what Jackie Chan would look like after a week-long cocaine and Red Bull binge, then you’re about to get the answer. Banlieue 13, the latest project from producer and directorial has-been Luc Besson to get an American release, is a hyperkinetic 85-minute ode to David Belle much the same way Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior was to Tony Jaa. Belle, the founder of an art form of uninterrupted movement through one’s environment called Parkour, spends much of the movie leaping through windows most people couldn’t crawl through, climbing balconies three times as fast as you’d climb a ladder, and jumping over people, cars, buildings, and pretty much anything else you can think of as his character Leďto fights to save his sister’s life from a French ghetto ripped right out of Escape From New York.
The year is 2010 and Paris has condemned its shittiest neighborhoods to lawlessness by building walls around them that keep the crime in and the cops out. Leďto and his sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) live on the inside of one called District B13, but Leďto’s refusal to play by the drug lord’s rules—by destroying cocaine shipments in his bathtub—has earned him a death mark. To escape it, he has to, you know, do amazing things with his body that would, if Belle wasn’t on-screen, probably get him committed to an asylum for suicidal tendencies. Luckily, throwing oneself 30 feet through the air or charging speeding cars looks perfectly reasonable when a camera is rolling. To capture Belle’s remarkable speed and death-defying stunts, first-time director Pierre Morel even had to use a special high-speed camera that recorded 150 frames per second instead of the normal 24. The results are crisper action sequences that are much less demanding on the eyes.
Needless to say, the drug cartel out to get Leďto is also amazed by his high-flying antics; one thug even describes him as being like soap, which is pretty much the only good line of dialogue in a movie that, if it were 1992, would star Jean-Claude Van Damme or Step by Step superstar Sasha Mitchell. Like Ong-Bak and pretty much everything Besson produces these days (The Transporter, Unleashed), it’s not about the story. It’s about making the audience scream out, “Holy shit! No he didn’t!” Perhaps in French it sounds a bit more exotic.
To complicate matters, the drug lord Taha (Bibi Naceri) wins at first. Through a chain of events too complicated, quick, and totally nonsensical to explain, Leďto is locked up in prison outside the wall, and Lola winds up Princess Leia-chained to Taha’s desk and kept too doped up to even grumble about it. Sometime later, a nuclear weapon of some variety—which looks like a dildo for giants—ends up in District B13, and a cop, Damien (Cyril Raffaelli), with some martial-arts skills and fearlessness to rival Leďto’s is sent undercover to get it back by any means necessary—which, of course, means roundhouse kicks and slow-motion aerial somersaults. Problem is, he can’t do it alone. Guess who he needs? And no, it’s not Steven Seagal.
Unfortunately, Damien can’t tell Leďto what he’s after (for whatever reason), and Leďto is just waiting for the chance to make a break for his sister and some more head-breaking action. Oh, the hijinks these two get up to while debating what makes a Frenchman a real Frenchman, subtly jabbing U.S. international policy, fighting each other, fighting the bad guys, and, oh, taking on an army of machine-gun-wielding thugs who all look like characters from the WWE. There’s a twist at the end that almost makes the story—at least thematically—work, but that’s a big “almost.” Again, ignore the fact that Besson and Morel are responsible for shitfests like The Transporter, Kiss of the Dragon, and Unleashed. Hell, Banlieue 13 isn’t all that much different. But it has Belle and, seriously, he’s worth the price of admission alone.