The appeal of Batman vs Superman isn’t about the physical fight. All Frank Miller hokum aside, Superman would wipe the floor with Batman in nanoseconds if push came to shove. What’s interesting about these guys going head to head is how they represent such different sides of the same coin – the darker Batman operates outside the law while the sunny Superman serves the system. Any story pitting them against each other must end with them coming to terms and a little bit of the other guy’s philosophy rubbing off on each other. It seems unlikely that there will ever be a Batman vs Superman movie, but now it doesn’t matter, as we have District B13.
It’s Paris in 2010, and the city’s slums have gotten so out of hand that the authorities have walled them off. Inside the walls it’s a dog eat dog world ruled by coke-devouring warlords and their gun-toting crews. Only one building is clean and safe, and that’s because it’s overseen by the dark avenger Leito, who looks like Dustin Hoffman on aerobics. In the opening Leito has stolen and destroyed bags and bags of kingpin Taha’s smack. To get back at Leito, Taha kidnaps his sister – after a couple of exciting fight and chase scenes, Leito and his sister think they’re safe at the police station, but it turns out that not only are the cops in Taha’s pocket, they’re abandoning the ghetto altogether and Leito is arrested.
Meanwhile, undercover cop Damien is busy busting up an illegal gambling den. After that mission he gets called into the head office – someone needs to break into the ghetto and defuse a nuke that has accidentally ended up there, which is going off in 24 hours. Damien must break Leito out of prison and together they have to take care of that bomb, save Leito’s sister, and find out just how the heck that nuke ended up there anyway.
To say that I loved District B13 would be underselling the film. It’s a goddamn blast, a rocket ride of action and fun. The heroes, played by Cyril Raffaeli and David Belle, rely heavily on parkour for their fighting style. Parkour is sort of a kind of urban acrobatics, and the style of swinging, jumping and vaulting brings to mind exactly what Batman would be doing in a real Gotham City and out of the ungainly rubber suits the movies keep putting him in. And it’s fitting – the Batman in this Batman vs Superman set-up is Leito, played by Belle, one of the inventors of parkour.
In many ways District B13 is like last year’s fantastic Ong Bak, and not just because of the involvement of Luc Besson in both. The films are furious and breathlessly entertaining action films that do with just some exceptionally talented stunt people what most big budget Hollywood action films can’t anymore – show us something new. Like Ong Bak, District B13 is filled with logical gaps, but the movie is moving at such a breakneck pace you don’t notice them until later, and even then the film has filled you with so much positive energy that you’re likely to forgive the parts that don’t work. Unlike Ong Bak‘s Tony Jaa, I didn’t find either of District B13‘s leads to be terribly charismatic, but their ability to move like mercury often kept me distracted from that.
What I found elevated the movie above just a fun action romp, though, was the film’s plot about a near-future Paris that can‘t deal with its own poor and immigrants anymore. We saw some of that last year, with the massive riots that spread across France, and the film references that briefly. District B13 shows a potentially naive level of trust in the democratic institutions of France (or maybe any country), but I think that wide-eyed optimism works in a movie where you’re marveling at a guy who is running up a wall under his own power. And it’s nice to see a political message tucked into a film like this, even if it is one that’s probably a bit heavy-handed in its home country.
The world’s cinema is catching up to, and maybe even overtaking, America’s. Once it was just that foreign films were more serious and adult than American films, but now Japan is making horror films better than ours and France has turned out the single best action film of 2006, bar none. Hollywood – stop remaking these foreign films and stop your bloated explodofests. Luc Besson and District B13 are issuing a challenge – take them up on it by making bare bones action films with heart, energy and maybe a message. Just don’t bother making Batman vs Superman.