Trivia The whole movie took ten months from idea to completion - January 2004 - October 2004
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District 13 (2004)
8th Jul 06
Two men from opposite sides of the law must team up to recover a deadly neutron bomb that has fallen into the hands of Taha, the criminal overlord of District 13.
“We need to make another buddy-buddy action movie,” says Luc Besson at the pre-production meeting of his latest project, “preferably with one guy who’s a cop and one who is not quite on the right side of the law”. He pauses. “But, we need a new ‘action’ angle. We did the cars in Taxi, we did Martial Arts in Danny the Dog. We need something fresh, something new…” Suddenly it dawns on him. “Ah mais oui! Le Parkours. Or, as the English call it, Free Running!”
And so begins the genesis of the latest offering from Luc Besson, whose prolific recent output has seen his name attached as a producer credit to no less than 48 films since his directorial trip-up with Jeanne D’Arc back in 1999. That’s almost ten films a year! So, you can pretty well assume by now, that he knows how to collect together a good team, and for District 13 (known as Banlieue 13 in native France when released last year) he looked far and wide before gifting the directorial gig to Pierre Morel, a camera operator with little previous directing experience.
As the script heavily features Free Running, Besson brought in the best; David Belle, the famous inventor of the ‘philosophical movement’ that basically entails leaping over buildings, like Superman, but ‘for real’ and in small agile bounds and jumps rather than one big leap. As his cop ‘buddy’ he cast the renowned stuntman Cyril Raffaelli for his fluid movements, and confident in the dynamics of his three main players, he pushed ahead. He added in loads and loads of criminal heavies, army garrisons full of weaponry, a neutron bomb and the obligatory car chases and explosions, until he was finally happy he had found the perfect blend of Saturday Night action entertainment.
And for the most part, this uber-cool French ‘redux’ of Escape From New York is exactly that - the perfect blend of Saturday Night action entertainment. The accelerated editing shots over the opening credits are becoming de riguer in action films of late, but at least in this film they have a point, as we are zipped around the dreadful District 13 in a future-set French city. District 13 is the lawless zone, and has been walled off from the rest of the city for years, a dirty, decrepit neighbourhood where even the police are moving out. Perhaps the only man there who still stands for liberté, égalité, and fraternité is Leitto, a sort of Robin Hood figure who we see attempting to destroy a huge package of drugs in the opening scene. Obviously the drug lord of the area (Taha) is not going to be too happy with that, so he sends over his head goon (K2) to capture Leitto, preferably alive.
Cue one of the most breathtaking chases in film history as K2 and eleven henchmen attempt to capture the impossibly agile Leitto as he makes a dash for it across the Parisian rooftops (although it was actually filmed in Romania as apparently it was easier to obtain the authorisation to film there). Make no mistake, if you thought the BBC idents of a few years ago were pretty good – you ain’t seen nothin’ yet as David Belle excels himself in this extended montage of jaw-dropping stunts. Whether he’s jumping through extremely small windows, swinging on ropes or leaping from building to building, these are the sorts of visuals that cinema was invented for. And it’s all for real too – no CGI – and only the very rare use of wires.
Unfortunately though, for all his fancy footwork, evil crime lord Taha has other plans and promptly kidnaps Leitto’s sister, and before you can shout out “Watch out! Corrupt Cop!”, Leitto finds himself behind bars and powerless to protect his younger sibling.
Cut to 6 months later, and it’s grip your seats tight time again as we meet our second hero Damien (Raffaelli), a cop who is infiltrating a drug ring in an underground casino club. Obviously Damien is trained in Arts all Martial, and when he reveals his true identity to the gang we are treated to another stunning action sequence in the underground bunker that results in several broken backs, empty gun shells and case closed for cop Damien.
It’s not all good news though, as straight after this, Damen’s boss pulls him aside to tell him that a new threat has emerged. Apparently a drug lord (in District 13 no less – could it be Taha?) has managed to get his hands on a brand new revolutionary neutron bomb, and Damien is assigned the case to retrieve the bomb at all costs. As Damien does not know the area that well (hey, this is District 13 we’re talking about!), he is given a guide, a certain man currently behind bars who knows the area well, a certain Free Running Leitto…
Ok, so you can obviously see where this is all going, but with these two likeable leads and plenty of dislikeable (for that, read likeable) baddies, it’s damn hard not to allow yourself be taken along for the ride. Besson knows how to please a crowd, and he’s never happier than when playing with big boys' toys, machine guns and explosions. Morel’s direction is more than able to keep up with the pace, and proves again Besson’s sharp eye for picking out previously undiscovered talent. A lot of the action was shot at 150fps, and looks absolutely beautiful, breathtaking even, when watching the agility of the two heroes leap around and over impossible heights to avoid the never-ending crowd of bad guys.
With such a relentless opening pace to the film though, it’s a shame that it can’t quite keep it going right up until the final hurdle and District 13 does start to tire as it comes around the home stretch, thus losing itself the chance of five stars. The final showdown is satisfying enough, but it’s nowhere near the scale of the opening two introductory showpieces, and it's a slightly anti-climactic third act, especially considering what has gone before.
Quibbles aside though, this is pretty much essential cinema for all action and martial arts fans, and proves that France are popping out more than their fair share of hugely enjoyable and commercial action movies of late, thanks in large to that man who once brought us Nikita, Leon and that one with dolphins and the diving. Wonder what he’s got in store for us next. A remake of The Magnificent Seven on jet-powered roller blades? Undercover espionage with a team of aerobics instructors? Whatever it is, we look forward to it, safe in the knowledge that this man has once again proved he knows his action. Besides, he’s probably got about ten projects on the go already. A busy man this Besson bloke. Let’s hope he keeps it that way.