In between ambitious arthouse projects and dialogue-driven dramas, France also managed to establish itself as a principal supplier of accomplished genre cinema. Not just followers, but actually leading by example, as Pierre Morel's District B13 [Banlieu 13] would come to illustrate. The film came seemingly out of nowhere but quickly turned into a little cult favorite that had international action fans scrambling to get a piece of the action. I wasn't quite sure if the film would hold up after all this time, but it turns out District B13 was still plenty spectacular.
France has one of the most revered cinematic legacies, but as a producer of slick genre cinema, they used to struggle. It's probably unfair to hold one man responsible for that change, but if you have to put forward a single name, then Luc Besson is a very worthy candidate. First as a director, then as a producer giving opportunities to fresh young talent. He's always had a good eye for things that would push the action genre forward. With District B13, this turned out to be parcours (or free running), a very graceful and cinematic sport.
I was surprised to find that the free-running scenes are actually quite limited because that's the principal thing I remembered about District B13. It is featured heavily during the opening scenes though, which set the tone for the rest of the film. Morel goes through various action niches later on, from car chases to heavy gunfights and athletic martial arts, and proved himself capable in every single one of them. They're just not as novel and/or memorable compared to that opening scene, which really offered something exciting and original.
Banlieu 13 is a Parisian district where the law has no power. It is governed by street gangs and crime lords, and when one of them manages to steal an experimental bomb, the government fears the outcome. They send in one of their best men, together with a local who was wrongfully imprisoned. The two are tasked with infiltrating Banlieu 13 and getting to the bomb in order to disarm it. They only have very limited time to complete their mission, at the same time they need to be careful they don't fall in the hands of the clans running the district.
District B13 is a core action flick, so having proper action choreography and cinematography is crucial in order to make a real impact. You can have great athletes and tons of gun power at your disposal, you still need that little extra bit of cinematic prowess to make it sparkle. Luckily, there's no lack of that here. The camera work is agile and flows really well with the action, there's a gritty quality to the visuals that enhances the setting and the editing is sharp and well-paced. The film looks the part and hides any budgetary limitations with plenty of stylistic flair.
The soundtrack is decent, slightly above average for this type of film even, but I believe there was more than enough potential to do better. There's a clear urban/hip-hop vibe that carries over in the characters and cinematography, but which could've been more accentuated in the soundtrack. There's no reason not to be a little bolder and braver when doing an edgy action film, now the music defaults to generic background music just a tad too often. The score is functional and doesn't distract, at the same time it doesn't really add much either.
As for the performances, they're good enough for what is needed, but the fact that the actors are primarily athletes cast for their physical skills probably won't surprise anyone. That's okay though, I expect them to do better at things like fight choreography and stage presence, in the end, that matters more than acing any of the dramatic fluff in between. A bit more charisma for the two leads wouldn't have hurt, the bad guys are better staffed, but again, not too uncommon for an action film. All in all, I can't really complain, as each and every one of them delivers.
District B13 is not a very complex film. There are two leads who can't stand each other but have one common goal, the end game is clear from the very start, the not-so-surprising twists do very little to change that. It's really all about the action scenes that tie everything together, and that's where Morel and his crew are able to shine. The only negative is that the most memorable action scene is right at the start, which means there's no obliterating finale to make you forget all about the rest. A minor snag that keeps the film from reaching greater heights.
Morel and Besson created one of the pivotal French action films of the 00s, one that still stands proud today. There's plenty of variation in the action scenes, the action choreography is splendid, the styling is bold and the pacing is slick. It's everything a modern action film should be. The sequel wouldn't reach the same heights and Morel would struggle to replicate the level of intensity and energy in his later films, but that makes this project all the more special. If you like a slice of action cinema and you haven't seen it yet, there's really no reason to avoid it any longer.