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Issue #131 - July 2006

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All the World's a Jungle Gym

By Peter Wong

Unless one was fortunate enough to see Luc Bessonís Yamakasi ó The Modern Day Samurais, or the documentary Jump London, probably the closest exposure an American fan could have got to viewing parkour in action would be an issue of the Warren Ellis-scripted comic Global Frequency. Now American mass audiences can see this amazing philosophy/urban sport in practice courtesy of the new French action import, District B13.

The year is 2010. Spiraling crime rates in certain Paris districts spur the French government to literally wall those troubled districts off from the less crime-prone areas of town. Behind one such wall is District B13. Leito is a vigilante living in the walled-in district. He incurs the wrath of Taha, the local drug kingpin, when he steals the narcotics peddlerís million euro drug shipment and destroys it. A gang of Tahaís enforcers, led by chief thug K2, fail to capture him thanks to the vigilanteís amazing display of parkour skills.

Taha retaliates by having Leitoís sister, Lola, kidnapped and held hostage. The parkour warrior manages to rescue his sister and take the drug kingpin hostage in turn. But Leitoís dramatic escape ultimately fails, and he winds up rotting in jail. Lola becomes Tahaís junkie plaything.

Flash forward six months. Undercover cop Damien uses his martial arts skills to bust an illegal casino operation. Rather than rewarding the cop with down time, his superior gives him rush orders to undertake a time-sensitive operation for the Ministry of Defense. An experimental neutron bomb has fallen into Tahaís hands, and the bombís 24-hour timer has accidentally been engaged. Unless Damien can defuse the explosive device in time, its detonation will kill 2 million Parisians, beginning with the inhabitants of District B13.

The big stumbling block is the copís unfamiliarity with both District B13 and the layout of Tahaís fortress. Fortunately, the imprisoned Leito knows both these things. The cop wants the justifiably distrustful B13 resident to cooperate. The concerned brother just wants to rescue his sister and exact payback against Taha. But even as both men realize cooperation is mutually beneficial, some unwanted surprises complicate completion of their missions.

Despite its appearance on the art house circuit, District B13ís target audience is the action film crowd. It is the action scenes, particularly the parkour sequences, that provide the real heart of the film.

What is parkour? A flippant way of describing this physical art would be "something that turns the human body into a graceful all-terrain vehicle." The simple explanation begins with the source of the term. Parkour comes from "parcours," the French word for course. Indeed, it was a group of Frenchmen who linked together various ways of moving the human body into what eventually became parkour. To one skilled in this sport, the sheer walls, graveled rooftops, and moving cars of a modern city do not become obstacles to the bodyís movement. An ordinary person would see a transom as a very tiny window. But to a master of this urban gymnastic art, that window becomes a tiny exit that can be utilized at a momentís notice. If parkour sounds slightly like the sports equivalent of improvisational theater, thatís because both art forms treasure the reliance on a practitionerís natural instincts, free movement through space, and individual expression. The physical urban art, though, also emphasizes efficiency and speed.

District B13 eschews the philosophical aspects of parkour in favor of using the sport to pump the viewerís adrenaline. What keeps its jaw-dropping urban leaping and bounding sequences credible is the presence of David Belle, who plays Leito. Belle happens to be one of the creators of parkour.

The sight of Belle doing tic tacs or gap jumps doesnít provide the only visual excitement in the film. There are also martial arts sequences, shootouts, and car chases. Pierre Morel, District B13ís director, admitted that his film was greatly influenced by Jackie Chanís action/comedy films. While Chanís Hong Kong action films provide a good template for overseas directors, the action scenes in the French film donít quite measure up to some of Chanís best action sequences. There is no insanely excessive martial arts battle to rival the climactic shopping mall struggle in Police Story. Instead, the casino shootout and hand-to-hand fight have the remembrance of lost punch-outs past about them.

These thoughts should not be taken as a call for requiring a stunt person to risk life or limb to thrill an audience. Knowing that one stunt in Armor of God led to Chan suffering a skull fracture killed the escapism value of that particular film.

District B13ís partial escapism killer is its nearly non-existent near-future speculation. The film is unwisely set in the specific year of 2010 instead of some vague future "a few minutes from now." Despite the presence of the wall, societal attitudes and mores have not significantly changed. B13 may have more junkies and graffiti-laden buildings, but thatís it. Nor has this near-future French society seen any technological advancement, even with the prototype neutron bomb.

This lack of speculation ignores the unfortunate current relevance of the filmís central concept. A physical barrier such as a wall shields a society from having to deal with the causes behind a social problem. For example, the proposed barrier between the U.S. and Mexico doesnít address the economic or political desperation that forces Central Americans to make the risky trip to El Norte.

As a result, many of District B13ís political stances feel trite. How revolutionary is the filmís insight that a tremendous gap exists between believing in the law and delivering on the promise of the law? There is one ironic point that doesnít receive due consideration. Despite Leitoís impressive skills in freely moving along walls and building exteriors, they will never be great enough to overcome the social barrier of living in a high crime area.

In character treatment, the French film remains a boyís adventure movie rather than a female empowerment film. Female criminals appear non-existent inside the walled district. In fact, the sole female character in District B13 is Leitoís sister. Though sheís assertive enough to exact payback against a thug who pinches her behind, Lola spends much of the film being held hostage by Taha.

Sly bits of humor keep District B13 entertaining instead of pretentious. K2 and his goons look for Leitoís apartment, yet Leito has written his name across his apartmentís front door. Taha reacts to the sight of the neutron bombís active countdown timer by deciding to look for a buyer before the bomb goes off.

By all rights, District B13 should be thrilling typical American multiplex audiences. Even its more familiar action sequences compare well with those in Hollywood films. A bopping hip-hop soundtrack keeps audiences cued for the filmís next fight. Multiplexes arenít automatically hostile to films with foreign dialogue and English subtitles, as theyíve screened Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Ong Bak ó Muay Thai Warrior.

Did distributor Magnolia Pictures not have access to the multiplex markets? Or did it fear the tremendously idiotic unpopularity of French people and French culture would doom the filmís commercial chances with mainstream America? Whatever the reason for District B13ís consignment to the art house theatres, open-minded American action film fans need to check out the film for a taste of parkourís elan. If such fans are then inspired to learn more about free running, they should check out www.urbanfreeflow.com.

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
Masthead Art copyright Steven Stahlberg (left) and Gerhard Hoeberth (right)
Additional artwork by Frank Wu & Sue Mason
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Copyright of individual articles remains with their authors
Editorial assistants: Anne K.G. Murphy & Kevin Standlee