District B13 (Banlieue 13) is a 2004 French action film starring Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle, which was remade in America in 2014 as Brick Mansions, starring Paul Walker in place of Raffaelli, but keeping David Belle. I watched the original, then the remake, and shall now review them side by side.
The plots are essentially the same -- in the near future (2010 and 2018, respectively) there is a city so overrun with criminals and corruption that the way it is dealt with is there's a wall built around it, to keep people from coming and going freely so as not to spread the crime further. The city is run by a crime lord who gets his hands on a large bomb with a ticking timer. To get the bomb back before it detonates, Damien, a cop form the outside (Raffaelli/Walker) goes undercover and teams up with an ex-con from the inside (Belle) Lieto/Lino, who's sister (girlfriend in BM) is being held hostage by the crime lord.
|Both films were written by Luc Besson. (Photo from B13.)|
But there is one important thing that sets this film and remake apart from other straightforward action flicks like it -- parkour. David Belle is literally the inventor of parkour, and his showcased incredible abilities is the best of both films. If he wasn't in the remake it would have been a gigantic flop. Well -- it was pretty big flop. Though the two movies are so similar it's actually kinda trippy, B13 is a brisk, thrilling and fun ride, while Brick Mansions goes through the motions in fits and starts, half-heartedly trying to to give it some new tweaks and lifts, and failing to capture the same exciting essence.
So where did Brick Mansions go wrong? It had about twice the budget and a bankable star, but perhaps it wasn't really aware of what it was that made B13 so great, because most of that greatness was cut out. Obviously Paul Walker is the main character in his film, but in the original, David Belle's character was more prominent and had more invested in the plot. The remake gives us a few scenes to establish and develop Walker's character so he'd work as the hero, but the additions didn't tie in with the plot at all, cut into the excitement and action with drama, and weren't all that good to begin with. Then David Belle's character had to take the cuts necessary to add that useless drama, and is only there, it seems, to do parkour stuff.
|I really like the music in B13 for some reason. It fits the film perfectly. (Photo from B13.)|
In District B13, the wary buddy-cop vibe between to two leads was quite fun; easy and engaging and definitely cool. Raffaelli may have been the second lead by a hair, but his role didn't feel forced that way -- it's just what came naturally out of the script. His introduction is action-based -- as opposed to Walker's drama-based -- and came off in a cool and unexpected and completely not-fussy kind of way. B13 never fusses. Belle's introduction is about the same both times, but from some reason the parkour stunts in B13 feel way cooler and way freakier.
Raffaelli did his own stunts too, focusing more on fighting stunts over parkour though. He fights like Captain America. He also choreographed the fights. These guys knew the value of doing what you know. For BM, the action proved to be a bigger problem than you'd expect. There was one guy jumping from crazy heights and climbing things you'd think would be impossible to climb, while the other guy... punches people's faces... in fast moving quick-cuts -- you know, the classic lazy solution for fighting and action scenes. Except it wasn't necessary. He was Paul Walker; he was good at action. Still, the other guys were better, and when compared with one, and contrasted side by side with the other, the lesser quality that came from Walker's side was noticeable. Once they used it as an opportunity for a funny gag though, which was smart.
|Strange -- usually, he'd be the one who's best at all that action stuff. (Photo from Brick Mansions.)|
Another main difference is that B13 got a R rating, while BM stuck with the PG-13. Usually, I'll appreciate the PG-13 choice more every time, but interestingly, not this time. B13 did earn it's R through blood splatter and language, but was certainly on the low side of the R scale. Brick Mansions' violence was practically the same, just less realistic, and was only short B13's language by a mere handful. It, however, was weirdly and creepily -- and completely unnecessarily -- sexualized in an extended plot line, which I gladly would have traded in for increased blood and F-bombs. Gladly.
And even though B13 was in French so I had to read along with the subtitles the whole time, it didn't detract from the experience at all, and the script quite sharp. Even before I had anything to compare it to, I was impressed by how refined it was, being an action film that could have got away with less effort in that area. I laughed several times unexpectedly from the sharp wit. BM had its occasional funny moment as well, but felt much more contrite generally. They took a very fresh feeling film, and basically adapted it to but just another stale American action film. I don't know if its being foreign-made had a hand at all in its stand-out presentation, but B13 is a quality film, and one of the more memorable straight-up action flicks I've seen in a long time. It plays by its own rules; mirroring the unique, quick and efficient style of the super cool discipline is centers around.
|Just to be clear, the 2 star rating goes to Brick Mansions, and the 4 to District B13. (Photo from Ultimatum.)|
I should have waited to write all that, because now I've also seen the sequel to B13, District 13: Ultimatum. I won't try to go back and rewrite to fit it in, because there's not much to add:
After a kinda slow and questionable start, the sequel is a mixture of action sequences that live up to the original standards, stacked in between a political and too lengthy plot development. The pacing suffers. And there's a bit more iffy content. But, the two leads keep their buddy-cop chemistry going strong, and the script adds a few new laughs and cool stunts. Since it came out in 09, it should be no surprise that Brick Mansions borrowed a few elements for their own use (and now that I know they weren't being original with those parts, I'm even more disappointed). The scale was much bigger in this one, and I think that got it their way. But when it was fun and action-y it was absolutely fun; a worthy sequel, and I'm giving it 3 stars.
So unless you just have to see Paul Walker in that hand-me-down role, or unless you think it's worth it to see David Belle do variations of the same stunt-filled scenes (actually, it kinda is), I'd recommend you just stick to the French versions.
Just for kicks: here's David Belle in a commercial for BBC One. Fun stuff (but there's cooler stuff in all three of these movies. Just sayin'.)