His Blazing Automatics is a Vague Visages column by staff writer Dylan Moses Griffin.
When writing about action films, I love discovering the subtle national commentary that exists in the storytelling. There’s always a lot to gleam about my country, the United States, during a certain period of time based on the type of action films being made: what kind of heroes viewers rooted for, what villains were predominant and what kind of adversity was faced. It’s always a unique way to gauge the cultural temperature of a place and time. This is a lot harder to do for other countries, though no less interesting. For example, I’m examining the District 13 films today, two exciting French action films from producer/writer Luc Besson. I know little about French history or cultural identity, so I’m not able to comment on the film’s impact on society. But I can look at the ways how the films differ from the lackluster American remake Brick Mansions, and how the differences reveal a lack of understanding about cultural and identity traits in the remake. Some action just does not translate across different cultures, and action filmmaking in itself is part of cultural cinematic identity.
The plot for the first film, District B13, is rather simple and has been utilized over and over since the 80s. But then again, Besson understands how to repurpose tropes and clichés. In 2010, Paris has walled off a section of the city that is steeped in poverty and crime, essentially leaving it to die. Undercover supercop Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) teams up with B13 resident and super-athlete Leito (David Belle) to take down a drug lord and disarm a bomb that’s set to go off in the center of the district. The iconic thing about the D13 films is how they introduced and popularized the style of parkour in action filmmaking. Belle and Raffaelli are certainly well trained in the activity, and their athletic stunts are the main point of the films.
Pierre Morel directed District B13 four years before launching Liam Neeson into action filmmaking history with Taken. Morel has directed some iconic work without actually being that good at directing action — that’s an important distinction to make, and it shows in District B13. The action is shot in messy, haphazard and schizophrenic takes without much skill present. Normally that’s not good, but it kind of adds to the charm as the story of District B13 is truly insane and kind of needed a similar direction to match it.
The second film, D13: Ultimatum (taking place three years later) is a rare sequel that’s probably actually better than the first. Damien and Leito reunite to unfoil a civil rioting conspiracy in District B13 in which bigwig government types can blow up the district and build new apartments over them. The film has more exciting action than the first, shot with slightly more skill by director Patrick Alessandrin, but it’s also 10 times more ridiculous than the first, which actually works to its benefit rather than derailing the sequel. Damien takes out a drug operation in a mini-skirt that shows off his butt. Then he takes out an entire room of guys with a Van Gogh painting. It’s amazing. Elodie Yung plays a gang leader who takes out a bunch of guys by whipping her ponytail around with a knife in it. It’s amazing. The whole film is like this, and it’s just a whole lot of fun.
Both films have the same central undercurrent: the government does not care about the poor and would rather wipe them out than fix the problems. It’s certainly potent material, and to be honest, it’s not explored subtly or thoughtfully at all, but that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be well thought out to be effective. After all, Besson has a knack for taking complex themes and watering their core ideas down to gunfire and fistfights.
Brick Mansions, the 2014 American remake, is bad for many reasons. And that would be okay if it didn’t come with the emotional baggage of Paul Walker’s untimely death. David Belle returned for essentially the same role, but the filmmakers opted to dub over all his lines with an American accent and it’s probably the worst ADR job that’s ever made it to theaters. It’s painful. RZA plays the villain in Brick Mansions, perhaps the lone bright spot. RZA is a rare human being who has earned so much artistic currency and actual currency that he can just kind of do whatever he wants and answer to nobody, and deservedly so, because he’s a genius. Even so, NOT EVEN RZA IS ENOUGH FOR THIS FILM.
Brick Mansions doesn’t do anything better or more interesting than the original, and it’s less genuine and more ham-fisted in how it handles the already obvious commentary. And so, the commentary fall flat, which also indicates that the French films meant what they were saying, that the filmmakers believed their characters and action were enough to get the point across. Brick Mansions also tries to redo all the parkour action but just can’t recapture the thrills of the original. Parkour, as an action style, never was legitimized in American cinema as something that could carry a film for an hour and a half. In chunks and scenes, it was okay and sometimes incredible, as chase segments in the Bourne films and the Fast & Furious films demonstrate. What this indicates is that parkour, in action films, is part of the cultural identity of French cinema. Just like every country has their own film renaissance in which a cinematic identity is built, the same goes for action films. The Raid films have the Indonesian martial art of Silat. China has multiple stylings like Wushu, Kung Fu and Wing Chun. France has parkour.
This made the D13 films inherently French stories, just like the original Oldboy is inherently a South Korean story, or how Akira is inherently a Japanese story. To remake them as American tales by simply copying and pasting doesn’t work. It’s mediocre filmmaking at best and cinematic whitewashing at worst. You can’t remake The Raid films (as Hollywood ill-advisedly wants to) and expect to recapture what made the originals special by simply having non-Silat masters do Silat. The action is as much of the cinematic language and identity of the region as the actual spoken language. Action films, in their own way, are a huge part of the cultural makeup and voice in cinema for their regions. The gaping differences between the D13 films and Brick Mansions are evidence of this.
Dylan Moses Griffin (@DMosesGriffin) has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.