Review: District B13 and Delivering on Promise

District B13 is not a movie I expected to be good. Not by a longshot. What I expected was a B-grade film encapsulated in ridiculous martial arts and parkour action. This is not what I got.

Parkour, also know as free running, is a recent vogue pseudo-sport. Essentially it involves moving rapidly through urban landscapes and performing acrobatics to get from one place to another without stopping. It’s stunt-running, basically. Or, better still, it’s what you know Jackie Chan to have been doing for decades now. A clip from the film itself gives you a good idea here. This is another compilation of parkour stunts. Silly? Maybe. But you can see how it could make for some pretty slick film stunts.

District B13 (Banlieue 13 in the original French) is a film written by Luc Besson of The Fifth Element and The Transporter fame. Say what you will of the sequels (and you you should say they are awful), the original Transporter kicks a fairly major amount of ass and was the first film that sold Jason Statham as a hardcore action guy in my mind. Accordingly, I was hopeful that District B13 would have a similar sort of action-packed flavor.

Not so.

For a film whose only selling point was the parkour-action bent, District B13 is remarkably anemic on action. It’s about 80 minutes long, and there’s maybe 15 or 20 minutes of action in the whole affair. That might seem like a solid percentage (almost 25%), but it’s not as if the space in between the action sequences is pulse-pounding. The action sequences stand alone, and if excised the film would still track start to finish as a complete story. What you end up getting is action and then a hard drop-off in adrenaline into a lot of talking heads and preachy, yet non-specific dialog about how government treats its people from time to time. Instead of steadily rising tension, the film is filled with peaks and troughs and the net effect is that it barely feels like an action film by the time it ends. You get the impression that’s exactly what Besson wants, and the action is really the vehicle to deliver his message into the hearts and minds of the viewers, but the film is entirely B-Movie fodder outside of the action. Watching the American dub doesn’t help, but I know schlocky dialog and delivery in any language.

District B13 didn’t really need to do much to win me over. It just needed to deliver on its promise. I didn’t want or expect it to be good, I expected to see a dude run on walls and jump between buildings and kick people in the head. I just didn’t get much of that, and so I felt cheated.

Now, Onk Bak, that’s a movie that delivers. It’s probably a C-grade film in all regards except for the action, which is just astounding. Tony Jaa is superhuman and his stunts are amazing and his martial arts are brutally impressive. It’s a movie to gather your friends and cheer around because it’s just non-stop. Fight scene to chase scene to fight scene—anything in between is simply prelude to another action sequence. It’s a film that knows what it is.

So, when you’re writing something, realize what it is, and deliver on that. If you’re writing a comedy, it better be funny. There should be regular, constant jokes. If you want a sports story, well… there should be a lot of action on the field. This might sound like the most obvious advice in the world, but many writers lose their way in the process. Inspiration may change the direction partway through the project, but if the entire thing isn’t course-corrected, you’ll end up with a disjointed and unsatisfying affair.

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