French action film featuring fighting, free running and stunts, produced and written by Luc Besson. The original French title is “Banilieue 13”.
Starring in his first major movie role is David Belle, credited as one of the eight founders of “Parkour”, or free running. Belle was a talented gymnast in the army, and integrated his skills into negotiating obstacle courses. Parkour is a sport where practitioners attempt to get from one location to another, usually an urban environment, by running, climbing, swinging, vaulting, jumping, rolling and somersaulting.
Belle’s co-star is French stuntman and actor Cyril Raffaelli. Studying Shotokan Karate from the age of six, Raffaelli excelled at sport, and began to train in circus acrobatics at fourteen. As a natural progression, he discovered the Chinese art of wushu, which utilised both his gymnastic and martial arts skills. Raffaelli first came to onscreen prominence as one of the blonde “twins” that fights Jet Li in the finale of “Kiss of the Dragon”. Since then he has appeared in “Die Hard 4.0”, and forged a career as a stunt performer and choreographer in films such as “The Transporter”, “Hitman” and “The Incredible Hulk”.
Taking the role of the main villain is French actor and writer Bibi Naceri, who co-wrote “District 13” with Luc Besson.
In the near future, the ghettoes of Paris are being controlled by violent gangs, drugs and organised crime. The worst of these is known as District 13 or D13 (Banilieue 13/ B13). Unable to control D13, the authorities seal off the entire area with military checkpoints and a barbed-wire topped concrete wall, forcing the inhabitants to survive without schools, proper utilities or police protection.
D13’s various apartment blocks are controlled by different gangs. Skilled traceur (free runner, Leïto (David Belle) lives in one such high-rise, and tries to keep it safe from the drugs and crime of the rest of the district. Leito destroys €1m worth of gang lord Taha Bemamud’s (Bibi Naceri) cocaine. In revenge, Taha kidnaps Leito’s younger sister Lola (Dany Verissimo). Leïto storms the gang’s base, rescuing his sister, and capturing Taha in the process. Leito takes Taha to a police checkpoint, but the police have been ordered to leave. Outnumbered by Taha’s gang, the police put Leïto in a cell, and release Taha, who takes Lola with him. Leïto kills the police chief for handing over Lola and is jailed.
Six months later, top undercover police captain, Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli) receives an assignment from the Defence Secretary of France, Mr Krüger. He is told that Taha has stolen an experimental neutron bomb that will detonate in twenty-four hours unless a ransom is paid. Tomaso must convince Leïto, imprisoned for months, to lead him to Taha’s base so that he can disarm the bomb.
In a race against the clock, the pair team up to jump, fight and flip their way through District 13, to save Lola and the population of Paris.
French filmmaker Luc Besson has been noted for making action movies with a European flavour and style. His films often include fast-moving car chases, John Woo-inspired shootouts, and Hong Kong-style fights. Having ventured into the martial arts genre with films such as “Kiss of the Dragon”, “Unleashed” and “The Transporter”, Besson was quick to recognise the action-film potential that Parkour, which was pioneered in France, could offer.
Besson wasted no time in recruiting David Belle, one of the originators and finest exponents of Parkour. Teaming him up with martial artist and stuntman, Cyril Raffaelli, Besson gave them three months to prepare and choreograph the film’s many action sequences. They did not disappoint.
With little to no visual effects or wire-assistance, the film delivered some of the most original stunts and action ever seen in a European-produced movie.
Belle’s first action scene is a great showcase and introduction to his skills, and the art of Parkour in general. He dives through the narrowest of gaps, bounces down stairwells, and leaps from as great a height as is possible without breaking his legs. The action is well-shot and Belle performs his stunts with great poise and style.
Cyril Raffaelli’s introduction scene is no less impressive. Taking place in an underground casino, Raffaelli fights numerous foes, whilst leaping over and under the various gambling tables. Using a mixture of guns, bone-crunching martial arts and gymnastics, he takes out the bad guys in various innovative, and occasionally humorous ways.
Having established our hero’s action credentials, the subsequent set-pieces include a fight in and around a van, with the doors and steering wheel used as effective weapons, shoot outs, a car chase but with our heroes on foot, an impressive “David and Goliath” battle, and of course the mandatory end-fight – a spectacular roof-top brawl.
Upon it’s original release in 2004, “District 13”, was quite a breath of fresh air. Much of the martial arts action genre had drifted towards the hyper real style of “The Matrix” and “House of Flying Daggers”. Even Jackie Chan’s films around that time, such as “The Medallion” and “Shanghai Knights”, saw an increased use of “wire-fu”. The free running in “District 13” added a new dimension to the stunts and action, which is ironic, as it could be argued that Jackie Chan was the original innovator of navigating any given environment in the most acrobatic way.
The martial arts choreography is fast, flashy and impressive, and of a standard any Hong Kong filmmaker would be proud of. As with the previous year’s “Ong-Bak”, what impresses most is that all the physical action is performed for real by the lead actors. The film is shot in a fast-moving frenetic style, (but not so “shaky” that the viewer can’t appreciate the action!) combined with a pulsating soundtrack.
Belle’s and Raffaelli’s physical skills are outstanding, but, whilst they were never going to win “Best Actor” Oscars, they also make engaging heroes. Naceri is a quirky and occasionally humorous villain, and this only adds to his menacing unpredictability. Dany Verissimo as Leito’s sister, Lola, isn’t given a great deal to do, but holds her own when given the opportunity to show her resistance to Taha’s thugs.
The legacy of this film saw free running integrated into mainstream action films such as “The Bourne Ultimatum”, “Prince of Persia”, “Die Hard 4.0”, and “Casino Royale” which featured Belle’s fellow Traceur and founder of Parkour, Sebastian Foucan.
One downside to this film is the appalling English-language dub, using a mix of Cockney, Irish and US accents. The subtitled version is much easier on the ears!
At just under 90 minutes, the non-stop action of “District 13” should satisfy even hardcore fans of the genre.
The film has recently been remade as “Brick Mansions”, with David Belle reprising his role (although renamed “Leno”), and starring the late “Fast & Furious” star, Paul Walker in the Cyril Raffaelli role.
- Directorial debut of Pierre Morel, who went on to make “Taken”, starring Liam Neeson, also written by Luc Besson.
- The film took 10 months from inception to completion (idea, script, casting, filming, etc), January 2004 – October 2004.
- It took six days to film Cyril Raffaelli’s opening fight in the casino.
- Although set in Paris, France, most of the film was shot in Bucharest, Romania.
- David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli returned to their roles in the 2009 sequel “District 13: Ultimatum”.
Film Rating: 8/10
District 13 (2004) vs Brick Mansions (2014)