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Free-running (roughly translated from the French ‘Le Parkour’) is an unusual mix of athleticism, martial arts and extreme sports designed also as a semi-practical alternative method of getting across cityscapes. If you’re not at all familiar with it then it is not that far removed from the kind of antics we see martial arts action superstar Jackie Chan get up to in his movies—running up walls, jumping across rooftops and moving lightning-fast as if buildings are not obstacles but merely playgrounds for adults. It was only a matter of time before free-running reached a broader audience, starting with popular documentaries about it like Jump Britain, and culminating with a cameo role in the new Bond movie, Casino Royale. However, about a decade ago, Luc Besson (who, after directing such classics as Leon and Nikita, had taken a hiatus to write and produce movies instead) introduced Le Parkour into his films with the little-known Yamakazi and now, after the success of many of his other productions (from his original French Taxi movies to the Jason Statham Transporter series) he is coming back to it full-throttle, with District 13 (aka Banlieue 13).

District 13

Movie


The year is 2010 and Paris has been divided into various districts that are each separated from one another by huge walls. Designed to contain the more troublesome areas and prevent crime from spreading, some districts became unmanageable, the most notorious being District 13, a ghetto where the rule of law has been lost and the gangs have taken over. The police and the authorities have abandoned all hope, leaving the criminals to wipe each other out.

Then one day an armoured transport gets hijacked and the District 13 gang boss, Taha, gets his hands on the contents of the vehicle—a missile that could be directed at the prosperous centre of Paris. It becomes imperative to retrieve the weapon and so the authorities task their best man for the job—Damien, a veteran undercover operative and hand-to-hand combat expert who has to infiltrate the dangerous territory by whatever means necessary. In order to get a better idea of what he is dealing with, he has to form an alliance with one of the previous gang leaders from the district, Leito.

Leito was born in this neighbourhood and made it his mission to rid the area of drugs and crime. He was rewarded for his efforts by being incarcerated himself and having the police donate his sister to the crime-lord Taha in order to appease him. Six months later and he is offered the opportunity to re-enter his home district and put things right, maybe even saving his sister in the process. He too is a martial arts expert and a free-runner, capable of traversing the urban landscape with swift steps and giant leaps, but even his great skills and his uneasy alliance with the undercover cop Damien may not save him from the dozens of gang members hunting him.

District 13
District 13 has all the hallmark features of one of Besson’s penned action vehicles. He’s a prolific writer of them, so it’s understandable that some sort of pattern emerges, but you really do get the feeling that it is much more a matter of quantity than quality with what he churns out. There’s lots of action, plenty of stunts, loads of guns, a stupid, frivolous and fanciful story and a clichéd script. Throw in stars who are better at martial arts and stunts than action and an inexperienced cinematographer-turned-director who has been watching too many Besson classics and voila!

Sounds predictable, doesn’t it? Well, it is. It’s cheesy, predictable, fluffy nonsense. But it is also great fun. Right from the outset, the running across rooftops, jumping from building to building and martial arts mayhem pound the viewer into submission and leave them begging for more. Since it’s such a short movie, the action simply never lets up, keeping the momentum going all the way to a climactic stand-off between two hand-to-hand combat experts. The story is almost inconsequential—which is just as well as it does not make a great deal of sense—but just about holds the action scenes together as the movie rattles along at breakneck pace.

The star of the show is easily David Belle, who plays Leito. A co-founder (influenced by his father, Raymond Belle) and leading proponent of free-running, he is fresh to acting, but with a stuntman background, some unbelievable athleticism and a fair amount of charisma, he seems destined to go places. In fact, whilst the action sequences are quite diverse (co-star Cyril Raffaelli provides the martial arts component), I could not help feeling that I would have happily watched an eighty-minute long version of the opening scene where Belle out-manoeuvres a gang of villains by using his free-running expertise. Raffalli (who has been in other Besson-penned b-movies like [/i]Kiss of the Dragon[/i], where he faced off against Jet Li) plays the cop, Damien, and gets to kick a fair amount of ass. It’s impressive stuff, sure, but nothing particularly original—certainly not when placed alongside Belle’s awesome free-running contribution.

District 13
All in all, if you don’t mind a bit of dumb plotting and dull scripting and are prepared to sit back and watch some serious action unfold, then this is well worth your time. As with Ong-Bak’s upcoming star Tony Jaa, I suspect David Belle (and co-founder Sebastien Foucan, soon to be seen in the new Bond movie, Casino Royale) are going to finally be given the recognition they clearly deserved. With the Hollywood film industry choked up with CGI and special effects, these fresh new all-but effects-free action sequences are likely to become increasingly popular. And free-running is going to become the next big thing.

Video


District 13 comes presented in a decent 2.35:1 aspect ratio anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer. Detail is largely good, with very little softness indeed, negligible edge enhancement and an acceptable level of grain that looks designed to make the movie look grittier. The colour scheme is quite varied considering the largely urban setting and whilst they don’t go to great lengths to make the movie look futuristic, there are a few nice touches here and there. Blacks are solid and allow for decent shading and overall it is a good effort.

Audio


The movie comes with a Dolby Digital 5.1 offering, in the original French language. With dialogue presented clearly and coherently from the frontal array and a fair few nice effects (most realistically bone-crunching), it would generally be regarded as a solid affair, but the frantic French score perfectly matches the frenetic pacing of the movie, kicking in whenever the action kicks off. Couple the exceptional use of the surrounds thanks to this part of the mix with some decent bass and this standard affair becomes resoundingly good, making the excellent action sequences even more engaging. There is also a dubbed English language alternative, but it’s not worth bothering with—the English subtitles on the French track should suffice.

District 13

Extras


First up we get a ‘Making-of’ featurette which lasts the best part of an hour and takes an in-depth, albeit commercial look at the production. Mostly in French, with English subtitles, it has the director (first-timer Pierre Morel) and his cast talking about the movie, both off-set in interview and on-set during the filming of some of the sequences. Bibi Naceri (who plays Taha but also co-wrote the screenplay with Besson) talks about the story, and the two leads discuss their action sequences. After the introduction, they look at the training (in particular the martial arts) and the stunts, detailing out the way in which they carried off some of the moves during both the opening and the casino set pieces. Then they look at shooting the movie, the free-running aspect of the production, the cast and the characters they portray, with plenty of time spent returning to the stunts and martial arts whenever the opportunity arrives.

‘Le singe est de retour’ is an ‘Urban Freeflow’ documentary on Stephane Vigroux, a practitioner of Le Parkour. Vigroux spends half an hour talking about how he became interested in the sport, the training he had to do for it and the big part of his life that it now represents. We get plenty of behind the scenes footage of him and his cohorts in action, showing the training ground, the practice manoeuvres (often repeated in slow-motion) and explaining how each technique is perfected. It is a very interesting little featurette that those who are intrigued by free-running will be keen on viewing. All in English, with Stephane speaking it fluently, his heavy French accent still sometimes makes you yearn for subtitles, just for clarification of what exactly he said.

‘Parkour Vision’ is a short seven-minute montage of free-running spectacles, with brief interview snippets from practitioners. It is interesting to hear about the way they think about cities, the way they see their paths across their surroundings, and how they train together to get different opinions on how to approach obstacles, but its short run-time leaves you feeling unsatisfied.

We get just under three minutes of outtakes, mostly involving prop errors and on-set laughs. The two leads look like they frequently find it hard to keep a straight face and it seems like quite a lot of fun was had on set.

District 13
The extended fight scene is of the casino sequence early on in the movie, where lead Cyril Raffaelli first gets to show his mettle. I don’t really know why they cut it down because the extra stuff (more body blows, gunshots and people to fight) does not appear to be enough to have risked a higher film rating. The sound quality is quite poor, but you generally get the feel for what could have been an even better fight sequence, had they left it in. Definitely worth checking out, this is one of those rare extras that some fans may end up watching almost as much as the main feature.

Finally we get trailers for the main movie (the long and short French versions as well as the UK trailer), Samurai Commando, Warrior King, Born to Fight, Supercross and Metal—A Headbanger's Journey.

Overall


District 13 is a silly, illogical, predictable and clichéd action vehicle penned by the prolific B-movie producer Luc Besson (who attempted a resuscitation of his directorial career with the recent French actioner, Angel-A). Also, as per many of his productions, it is great fun, a guilty pleasure packed with colourful comic-book-like characters, big guns, big stunts and plenty of action. This offering is particularly noteworthy because of its use of the new ‘sport’ of free-running and the introduction of David Belle, a free-running expert and potential new action star. Technically, the release is pretty good, with decent video and audio and much better extras than were given to the region one release across the ocean. Definitely worth a rent but action and martial arts fan will almost certainly have to add this to their collection.


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