Banlieue Brick Mansions

Brick Mansions is this week’s film offering for the action-adventure crowd.  Fast cars, free-running, martial arts, and a thousand beat-up bangers top the list of general descriptions.  Brick Mansions is also the late Paul Walker’s last film.  People clued in to the international martial arts/action film scene know that Brick Mansions is a remake of the breakaway French film hit Banlieue13 (2004 in France released as District 13 in 2006 in the USA).

The big bonus draw for Brick Mansions was the return of the original Banlieue 13 star, the founder of Parkour itself, David Belle.  This is the man who made a hobby, a passion, and then a worldwide sensation racing across the roofs of French cities.  Digging into the credits reveals that Luc Besson (of whom I am a big fan) and Bibi Naceri returned as screen writers from the original film.

Brick Mansions delivered the contents of its previews.  A pair of forty-year-old actors did their best to play acrobatic action stars racing through the slums (Detroit this time instead of Paris, because to find the right kind of slum you need to find a city district the Democrats planned based on Soviet Communist models, and note that they got the same results, a collapsed economy and half-ruined buildings everywhere.  This quick history lesson provided gratis.)  David Belle provided an amazing athletic performance for a man his age.

I was very excited by the idea that Paul Walker, a life-long martial artist himself, was going to get to have a martial arts film on screen to add to his lifelong legacy.  But his performance was largely unmemorable.  Walker’s MMA style is solid, occasionally impressive as it integrated some nice joint manipulation in a fight scene handcuffed to a steering wheel, but a very poor fit for the Brick Mansions film.  David Belle’s spinning, flipping style stole every scene.  Walker phoned the acting in as well.  He was capable of much better performances.

There were a couple of breakout performances in this film.  RZA played Tremaine (replacing the French version’s Taho as gang leader in the abandoned slum).  Tremaine carried a great deal of charisma into the villain role, and it was easy to see how such a personality could lead among the evil people who followed him.  The newly added female villain Rayzah introduced a touch of low-rent James Bond villain into the mix.

Just as David Belle has lost a step from 29 to 39 years of age as a far-leaping acrobat and fighter, Brick Mansions comes in a step behind District 13 in every dimension except set design.

David Belle originally played against Cyril Raffaelli, an acrobat, stuntman, and whose Wushu-cum-Karate fighting style is a perfect spinning eye candy to stand up right along with Belle’s.  Several car chase scenes were added to service Paul Walker’s fan-base, but they did not advance the plot, and four minutes of Paul Walker clinging to a speeding car cannot replace Raffaelli ninja-ing the crap out of twenty stuntment in a casino.

Luc Besson’s original film had much better dialogue and interplay.  Brick Mansions is aimed for the fourth-to-sixth grade reading level for sure.  Banlieue 13 has a sweet speech by the cop that goes something like this (I may not get this word for word as I am translating from the French in my head):

“I’m here [in the slum that is not my home] fighting to save it because I believe in Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity [the core values of the French Republic], not just for some, but for all people, including the people here.  I believe in equal justice under the law, for all, not just for some, and that is what I’m fighting for.” -Raffaelli

Now for you in the American audience:

“I’m here trying to do the right thing.  Not everyone out there are assholes.” -Walker

Seriously?!

The fight scenes are cut down.  Banlieue 13 contained wide-angle shots in the Hong Kong style, meaning that every body motion of everyone involved is visible.  This film style is preferred among serious action afficionados because there is no room to hide.  David Belle really did thirty-foot leaps in the original movie, and we know because they were shot, uncut, from half a block away and a hundred feet up.  Brick Mansions choreographs jumps half as long and still cuts from the leap to the landing.  Maybe the director thought an ADHD American audience couldn’t sit still for the .304 seconds that it would take the actor to fly through the air, but it comes across as a cheat and makes it look like David Belle can’t do the stunt.  They are also cut down for Paul Walker’s lack of skill (relative to Belle and Raffaelli, who is one of the most famous fight choreographers to come out of Europe in the last fifteen years).

Then there are changes in plot and characterization that go against my grain.  We’re about to get briefly into spoiler land here, though the story has been out there for a decade so I’m not sure how much I can ruin.  I will try to be brief.

Instead of fighting for his kidnapped sister, David Belle’s hero now fights for an ex-girlfriend he doesn’t see any more.  Then instead of seeing the sister fight her chains to try and disarm a rocket, we get a semi-eroticized chick fight that is disturbingly brutal and bondage-themed.  The police investigator isn’t an idealist, so the plot arc that see his idealism grow and triumph in the end is replaced with some mob violence against the police.  The leader of the gangs, an open drug-dealer, murderer, kidnapper, and arms dealer, ends up being the savior of the city.  That’s what you get for casting RZA.

Though, since this is Detroit, I may agree that it would be a step up, not morally, but at least openly.  Wasn’t there a California state senator (a Democrat) arrested for gun smuggling with the Chinese Triad gangs after he passed a bunch of laws saying the law abiding people couldn’t have firearms?  Hm….

Brick Mansions is not bad.  It’s pretty good.  If it weren’t a remake of the truly excellent Banlieue 13 it wouldn’t lose by comparison.  Fortunately, the better movie is available on Amazon.com.

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