August 31, 2006

DVD Review: District B13

I first heard about District B13 when I read a brief review of it at the Home Theater Forum. I don't recall the specifics of the review, but I remember the short version basically said that it was short on story and long on action, and on that level of action, it delivered. Then I saw a commercial, at that point I was sold. Sadly, the movie never played theatrically in my area. Thankfully, the DVD is here to rectify that situation.

After watching the movie, I am forced to agree with the assessment that the story was thin and the action was high. District B13 is firing on all cylinders for the near 90 minutes of its runtime, stopping on brief occasions to spell out the plot for you. Dialogue is not a strong point, but having Luc Besson as the producer should probably tip you off to that. Besson is a name that has become synonymous with over the top action, having produced films such as Transporter (1 and 2), Kiss of the Dragon, Unleashed, and Wasabi. This one continues that tradition in explosive fashion.

Set in the near future, the bubbling undercurrent of class based struggles reach a boiling point. The government has constructed a wall around the low class ghettos to keep the "bad" influence away from the upper class. This ghetto is run by a drug dealer who goes by the name of Taha. All government influences are gone or leaving, no schools, no post office, an ineffectual police force. The plot kicks in when a prototype neutron bomb is stolen by Taha, who plans to sell it to the highest bidder, if he can do so before the timer runs out.

Before we get anywhere near the bomb plot, we need the requisite sequences to introduce us to the heroes. The opening scene introduces us to Leito, a man who has made an enemy of Taha by making off with a large quantity of heroin, and is proceeding to put it down a tub drain. In short order, Taha has his men, led by his right hand thug K2, to retrieve the lost merchandise. This leads to a breathtakingly exciting chase through, on, around, up, and down an apartment building. This is, quite possibly, the best sequence in the film. It shows off the athletic ability of David Belle, the actor playing Leito, and does a good job at setting the stage of what is yet to come. The sequence also sets up our hero as anti-drugs, someone willing to stand up for his beliefs, and with a strong sense of family. That may not all be apparent by this description, but once you see it, you will understand.

The other important introduction is that of Damien. Like many action hero entrances, the scene does nothing to further the plot, but establishes out man as a good guy, and shows off his impressive abilities along the way. Damien is an undercover cop, who is working at stopping a criminal payout, what this is for, I am not sure. Damien ends up fighting all of the henchman located in the underground gambling facility serving as the backdrop. Damien is played by stunt choreographer Cyril Raffaelli, who has also worked on films such as Transporter 2 and Brotherhood of the Wolf. He puts on an impressive display of martial arts and gun play, an inventive scene, to say the least.

Now that both of our heroes are in place, it is time to move the plot forward. Each of these men have a reason to want to get to Taha. Leito's is personal, involving his sister, while for Damien, it is his job as a top undercover operative. The two team up to enter Taha's stronghold and get to the stolen neutron bomb and deactivate it before District B13, the name of this particular walled in ghetto, gets decimated.

The plot moves along in fits and bursts, serving to primarily link together the numerous action sequences. The screenplay, by the duo of Luc Besson and Bibi Naceri, is not very good. The it falls into the trap of having these scenes whose only purpose is to explain what is going, rather than integrating them into the action. Still, I was not too distracted, as I knew that I wasn't too far away from the next explosion of action. The direction by Pierre Morel, making his directorial debut, is dynamic and strongly oriented to the visual. Morel succeeds in getting interesting angles on the action, and allowing the viewer to follow the action, it never becomes confusing or disorienting, which is also a credit to the editors, Stephanie Gaurier and Frederic Thoroval. Another high point is the hip hop styled music, filled with fun beats that fit the tone and style of the film.

The acting is nothing spectacular, but it works for the movie. Aside from our two leads, I found
Dany Verissimo, as Leito's sister Lola, to be very effective in her small role. She is adorable and filled with attitude and just forces you to like her. I also liked Tony D'Amario as K2, a rather humorous role. Again, the acting is nothing that will ever win any awards, but within the confines of this universe, they are perfect.

In the end, this is an absolute blast. The past few years have delivered some great action over story films, and this is definitely towards the top of the list. I am a sucker for flashy action films like this, and I am happy to say that I was satisfied on all counts. Interestingly enough, there is an interesting connection between this film and current attitudes in France, I have read that the elitism that led to the walling in of the ghetto could be seen as a natural extension of the current culture. I saw this in a documentary on the film, and adds another layer to the film, making it a bit more relevant in its native country of France (where it is known as Banlieue 13).

Video. The movie is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. It looks decent, but the colors seem a bit washed out. It may have looked like this originally, but I cannot comment on that. It just seems as if it could have been a little crisper looking. It is not bad, just not reference material.

Audio. The soundtrack is presented in both French and English, and each has the option of Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0. I listened to the original French, with subtitles (the way it should be), in 5.1. It sounds good, giving a good mix of the hip hop inspired soundtrack, and fine focus on the dialogue. I did listen to a few minutes of the English dub, and I do not recommend it.

Extras. There are a few bonus features on the disk.
  • Extended Fight Scene. This is a longer cut of the casino fight with Damien. It has unfinished effects, so the sound is a bit off, but otherwise looks good. I can pick out some things that are different, and it is well worth a view. Makes me wonder if the opening Leito chase has a longer version somewhere.....
  • Bloopers. This runs about two minutes and is pretty funny as they flub lines and "accidentally" break their handcuffs.
  • The Making of District B13. This is the meat of the extras selection. It is a lengthy documentary that follows the selection of the writer and directer, by Besson, through the stunts and choreography, to the relevant social commentary, and on through the production. It is actually quite interesting seeing all that went into making the movie. It is in French with subtitles.

Bottomline. Very nice disk. It is a fun blast of action, complimented by some nice extras. The action is explosive, and highly entertaining. If you like your action over the top, this is a must see.

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