Banlieue 13

It’s no secret that I love action movies, especially American ones from the 1980s. As I wrote in my History of the Modern Hollywood Action Film, the genre has been greatly influenced this past decade by Hong Kong martial arts flicks. This is even more true in France, where Luc Besson has been harvesting many action movies, from the “Taxi” and “Transporter” franchises to a couple of Jet Li vehicles and “Ong-Bak”. I haven’t been a huge fan of those but in retrospect, it seems they’ve been building up to this here “Banlieue 13”, which is truly one of the most impressive recent action flicks. It still suffers from lame comedic flourishes, cartoonish characters and clumsy writing, but as directed by newcomer Pierre Morel, the shoot-outs, chases and fights are so thrilling and inventive that one can easily forgive those missteps.

Plus, the basic story is actually pretty damn potent, especially considering recent events in the French cit├ęs. Set around 2010 Paris, “Banlieue 13” anticipates that as some districts become overcome with poverty, crime and social unrest, the government will decide to build an “isolation wall” around them and let the “racaille” rob, rape and kill each other away from the rest of the population. But when the most ruthless gang of the suburbs grabs hold of a weapon of mass destruction, a cop (Cyril Raffaelli) is sent in along with a convict (David Belle) who knows how to get around B13 to defuse the bomb before it’s too late.

This is basically the plot of John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A., with a touch of La Haine thrown in. There’s also a Stupid Chief that predictably screws the good guys over not unlike in Rambo: First Blood part II and a loudmouthed, trigger-happy drug lord not above burying his face in a mountain of cocaine on his desk, Scarface-style!

The stars of the film, Raffaelli and Belle, are experts in Parkour, a discipline that consists in moving fluidly through your environment, no matter what obstacles are in your way. Hence, the adepts of this daredevil art climb up buildings, hop over fences and jump from roof to roof. This makes for many vertiginous sequences, with acrobatic feats worthy of Cirque du Soleil! Action heroes have relied a bit too much on wires and special effects since The Matrix, so it’s nice to see actors doing their own stunts. “Banlieue 13” doesn’t reinvent action cinema, but it does bring a breath of fresh air to it.