Especially since the beginning of the Iraq war, the United States has not been particularly famous for positive sentiment for France and the French. Freedom fries? Freedom Toast? Jokes and stereotypes abound about baret-wearing, limp-wristed Frenchmen and a culture that won't fight back. How about "cheese-eating surrender monkeys"? That's a good one, isn't it? Real funny stuff. It was a line on a 1995 episode of "The Simpsons" that was popularized by right-wing pundits. Yeah, question: if the French are such wimps then how come their action movies are 100 times better than ours?
Just watch "District B13," an action movie so intense, exhilarating, and wildly entertaining that the only ones surrendering will be the audience.
It's one of those too-soon dystopian futures - 2010 - and some Paris neighborhoods have grown so wild and crime-ridden that the city encircled them with a wall and has all but abandoned them. The ghetto is B13. Officials are frustrated, wishing they could just wipe the uncontrollable, expensive problem right off the map.
Inside, ganglord Taha (Larbi Naceri) snorts mountains of cocaine off of his desk a la "Scarface" and commands an army of well-armed thugs. But Leito (David Belle) will not tolerate his home flooded with heroin. The film begins with him destroying a million euros worth of stolen smack. Taha's chief lieutenant, K2 (Tony D'Amario, easy to remember because his name is cut into his hair on the back of his head,) leads a dozen armed punks after him.
Leito's exhilarating escape through the apartment and rooftops is the first indicator that with "B13" you're in for something else. Belle is the founder of the sport/art of parkour where individuals try to move through urban obstacles as quickly as possible - climbing, jumping, and performing various moves. The film's parkour-inspired sequences are unique and exciting.
The parkour is an apt physical metaphor for the character of Leito - confident, aggressive and spontaneous, a rogue of the streets improvising his way through a brutal world for which he refuses to submit.
The film will team him up with Damien (Cyril Raffaelli,) a brilliant cop, perfectly trained and dedicated to order. He's an elite officer who works with careful planning and preparation, disappearing into long-term undercover roles. His professional fighting style makes a clear distinction from the learned-on-the-streets urban style of Leito.
The two will be brought together to secure a major weapon of mass destruction gone missing - a prototype nuke dubbed a "clean bomb" capable of a precise explosion that leaves no radioactive contamination. Taha acquired it and unintentionally activated its 24-hour timer.
Damien can deactivate it, but he'll need Leito - who knows the jungle maze of B13 all too well - to get to it. And Leito is extra-motivated to help out: Taha has kidnapped his sister Lola (Dany Verissimo,) a girl just as aggressive as her brother whom Taha keeps on a leash incapacitated, pumped full of smack. The name 'Lola' is a nice nod to that other great subtitled action film with Europeans running around to a techno beat, Tom Tykwer's "Run Lola Run." (And the Lola in "B13" is just as hot as Franka Potente.)
But you know what? All that? The plot? Doesn't matter. Don't get me wrong, it's wonderful and its characters are as cool as is cinematically possible. This is a film that can work on its action alone. Now that's pure blasphemy in my particular sect of the religion of film. I've always said that an action film lives or dies based on whether or not the director can create characters and a plot that can make the action actually matter. With "District B13" my dogma is debunked, the action matters simply because it's so white-hot super-cool. How that particular paradox functions I'm not quite sure but it seems to describe the film rather accurately.
This is a subtitled film. But if it were not - not if it were dubbed but if it simply had nothing but the French dialogue - it would not matter much. And part of that is that one could probably follow it fine without understanding what the characters were actually saying. It's visual storytelling.
It might interest some to know that "District B13" is in some ways pretty characteristic of many French films released in the past decade or so that do not quite jibe with those French jokes that seem to amuse so many. Experienced cinematographer-turned first-time director Pierre Morrel joins a rich contemporary French tradition of films without mercy.
For over 30 years now French auteur Catherine Breillat has been making some of the boldest, most intelligent films about sex, each one pushing the envelope further. With "Romance," "Fat Girl," and "Anatomy of Hell," Breillat assaulted the screen with radical, thought-provoking explorations. Gaspar Noe has been even more brutal. His "I Stand Alone" and "Irreversible" are some of the most shocking, controversial films of the past five years. Newsweek dubbed "Irreversible" the "most walked-out-of" movie of 2002 for its unrelenting violence. And then there's "Baise-Moi," a super-violent female revenge flick that Rolling Stone's Peter Travers summed up perfectly as "Thelma and Louise with actual penetration!" All six films - which would have received NC-17s - were released unrated.
"Cheese-eating surrender monkeys" indeed. If they're the weaker society then how come our cinema is castrated in comparison?
It's not clear how many good Americans are still loyally sticking to that devastating boycott of all things French that Fox News' Bill O'Reilly so patriotically spearheaded, but this particular import is something for which one should make an exception.