Leave it to Luc Besson, the man behind “La Femme Nikita” and “Leon”, to single-handedly keep the phrase “French action movie” a viable option. The prolific writer/director/producer has had his hands in almost every action movie that has come out of France in the last two decades or so, from the successful “Taxi” franchise to every Western film Jet Li has done in the last 5 years and change. Besson’s “Banlieue 13” (“Suburb 13”) is parts “Escape from New York” and a stunt demo reel for stars David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli; but most of all, Belle, who performs the film’s more death-defying moves with inspiring precision and ease.
In the mould of the Thai films by Tony Jaa or Jackie Chan’s earlier Hong Kong days, “Banlieue 13” is less a movie than it is a series of elaborately choreographed stunts tied together by a flimsy (at best) storyline. Title cards inform us that in the year 2010, France’s out of control crime rate has resulted in the more high-risk areas being cordoned off with brick walls, effectively turning whole neighborhoods into self-policing ghettos. One such area is Banlieue 13, where good Samaritan Leito (David Belle, last seen as “French cop” in Brian DePalma’s “Femme Fatale”) robs from the gangs and dumps their drugs down the toilet. After getting onto the wrong side of local kingpin Taha (Bibi Naceri, also the co-writer), Leito finds himself in prison while his feisty little sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) ends up Naha’s captive.
Sentenced to prison for a crime he very much committed, Leito gets busted out by idealistic supercop Damien (Cyril Raffaelli, last seen battling Jet Li in the Besson-written and produced “Kiss of the Dragon”), who is tasked with retrieving an experimental nuclear bomb stolen by Taha. Damien needs Leito to get around Banlieue 13, but Leito only cares about getting to Taha and exacting some revenge. Plus, his sister is still being kept by Taha as his personal plaything. What’s a supercop with a mission and a revenge-fueled badass to do?
Clocking in at a brisk 70-something minutes, “Banlieue 13” won’t go on anyone’s reel as an example of fine storytelling, but it will be making the rounds as a stunt reel for stars David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli, along with the army of stuntmen who gets to chase our two leads through hallways, tunnels, streets, patios, buildings, and rooftops. Needless to say, half of “Banlieue 13” consists of nameless bad guys chasing our good guys over various obstacles, providing an excellent showcase for the stars’ unbelievable physical prowess. To see David Belle scaling high-rise walls and leaping across rooftops like he had feathers, you’d swear the guy was made of rubber.
For a movie written by Luc Besson, “Banlieue 13” is a bit of a disappointment in the story department, but it’s nothing you couldn’t forgive once the kicking and punching springs back to the fore. “Banlieue 13” barely has a story, with its plots little more than occasional devices to propel its two leads into yet another tight situation where they must jump, twist, or backflip their way out of. Director Pierre Morel, a Besson apprentice, has wisely elected to skate around some of the film’s more grim issues (Lola’s status as Taha’s slave for 6 months, anyone?), and concentrate on the action, action, and more action. In his first feature film, Morel effectively keeps the film moving at such a breakneck pace that the whole thing is over before you know it, and there’s never any down time to realize that the script couldn’t have been more than 30 pages long.
Aside from the little hiccup concerning Lola’s unfortunate dilemma while her brother is locked away, “Banlieue 13” is a good starting point for the continued adventures of David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli. No doubt Morel’s flashy directing style will get him plenty of work in the Besson camp, where style over substance seems to be the rule of thumb if “The Transporter” and other Besson-produced films are any indication. It goes without saying that “Banlieue 13” has some excellent stunt work, and should really be enjoyed on a surface, “don’t think too much” level.
Pierre Morel (director) / Luc Besson, Bibi Naceri (screenplay)
CAST: Cyril Raffaelli …. Damien
David Belle …. LeÃ¯to
Tony D’Amario …. K2
Bibi Naceri …. Taha
Dany Verissimo …. Lola