It's the year 2010, and Paris has walled off its more troublesome ghettoes from the rest of the city, essentially giving them up for lost. One man still bent on cleaning up the neighborhood joins forces with a cop to stop a local drug lord from firing a missile that will destroy all of Paris. Oh, and the guy's sister is chained to the missile. Oh, and nearly everyone communicates through a nifty style of urban martial arts known as parkour.
That's the premise in "District B13," a ridiculously entertaining French action flick that's loaded with style, wit and jaw-dropping feats of physical prowess. Now, when I say "ridiculously entertaining," I don't mean the film is entertaining because it's so ridiculous, although it certainly is not what you'd call realistic. I mean that it's ridiculous how entertaining it is. I think of all the millions spent on "X3" or "M:I-3," when what they really needed to be successful wasn't money but energy.
"District B13" has energy, all right, coming from the team that brought you "The Transporter" and "Unleashed" (aka "Danny the Dog"), both similarly gleeful in their manic violence. It begins with Leito (David Belle) disposing of a suitcase full of cocaine that he stole from neighborhood kingpin Taha (Bibi Naceri, who co-wrote the screenplay). Baha's goons come after him, and Leito makes an extraordinary escape from his upper-story apartment in a dilapidated tenement.
Six months later, Leito's sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) is a prisoner of Baha's and Leito himself is in a state penitentiary, thanks to Baha's ownership of the few cops still patrolling District B13. Enter Damien (Cyril Raffaelli), an undercover cop assigned to rescue the missile from Baha's possession before it goes off 24 hours from now. Through a ruse that is unnecessarily elaborate, he gets Leito out of prison and conscripts him to be his partner in the mission, to save Lola and the city all at once.
The fight scenes are wickedly choreographed and perfectly performed by all the actors, who were chosen less for their acting ability (though they do fine) than for their martial-arts and gymnastics skills. Director Pierre Morel, a cinematographer taking his first stab at directing, avoids the chaotic, jittery-camera sequences favored by many of his colleagues in Hollywood. Indeed, the camera often doesn't move at all once it's been set. The energy comes from the editing, cutting rhythmically from one angle to another, showing us the action in big enough chunks that we're able to see who's hitting who or who's falling off of what or what that guy just got whacked in the head with.
The slender screenplay, co-written by Luc Besson, includes an introductory sequence for Damien that would seem to be superfluous -- who is this guy, and what happened to the story about Leito we were watching? -- but it turns out to have been a smart addition. It establishes Damien as a fighter who's as capable and resourceful as Leito (he single-handedly takes down an underground casino), so when the two are paired, we see them as equals, not as leader-and-sidekick.
As far as the characters go, well, they're likable enough, both very earnest about their goals, but they're not exactly deep. They do what's required of them, though, which is to kick butt and save Paris. At one point one of them says, "Violence isn't the only way to solve problems," and I couldn't tell if the movie was kidding or not.