Le Parkour, better known on these shores as "free running", is the athletic discipline that enables its practitioners to leap on, over and through urban landscapes with mobile efficiency. It has featured in an attention-grabbing BBC station trailer from 2002, in the TV documentaries Jump London and Jump Britain, as well as in numerous advertisements and it is about to be seen in the opening rooftop sequence of James Bond's latest outing, Casino Royale, but the first filmmaker to exploit le parkour in a feature length production was Luc Besson in Yamakasi (2001), and he is at it again in District 13 (aka Banlieue 13, or just B-13), blending the airborne art with some of the punishing wire-free violence he picked up while executive producing Ong-Bak (2003).

In the bravura opening of District 13, Leito (David Belle) is shown escaping a bunch of murderous drug dealers in a tall apartment building, single-handedly rescuing his sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) from a heavily armed compound and meting out brutal punishment upon the police chief who has just allowed the arrested criminal kingpin Taha (Bibi Naceri, who also co-wrote the script with Besson) to walk off unpunished. with Lola as captive.

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If Leito is an honourable man, who uses agility and quick thinking to survive in the most hostile of environments, then so too is Damien (Cyril Raffaelli), an incorruptible undercover cop who is seen in the film's very next scene being forced to bring down a casino-full of gangsters all by himself with some bone-crunching martial arts moves. Though they live on opposite sides of the security wall that cordons off the high-crime housing projects of District 13 in a dystopian Paris of the year 2010, Leito and Damien seem to be fighting the same battles; and when an experimental weapon of mass destruction falls into Taha's hands, the pair must try to lay aside their natural distrust of one another in order to prevent cataclysmic disaster, in a world where it is not always so clear who the real enemy is.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with making a film that blends elements from John Carpenter's B-classics Assault On Precinct 13 (1976) and Escape From New York (1981), but for all their physical prowess, neither "free running" founder Belle, nor stuntman Raffaelli has the charisma of Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken.

In the absence of credible characterisation, engaging dialogue or decent acting, District 13 stands or falls by the power of its action scenes, and in this respect the film certainly delivers, with enough high-flying stunt work and precision fighting (filmed at a richly detailed 150 frames per second, rather than the usual 24) to knock the wind out of any viewer, even if the film leaves itself gasping for air, too.

For in the opening diptych of sequences that introduces the two heroes, first-time director Pierre Morel packs so much punch that it is impossible for the rest of the film to keep up the pace. All the most memorable parts of District 13 actually precede the unfolding of its main plot, which, much like the thermonuclear device on which it is premised, is never allowed to fulfill its explosive promise.

Perhaps, what is most interesting about Besson and Naceri's script is its politics. At a time when there has been rioting in the streets of Paris' neglected outer suburbs, whose denizens have been openly branded "scum" by French ministers, the film dramatises, however simplistically, the fascism implicit in policies of social exclusion and the dangers of ignoring desperate people. Leito's refusal to be kept down by thugs, cops or politicians, let alone by the forces of gravity, reflects a more general concern with that great Gallic obsession, liberte, and its fragile place in the France of today - and tomorrow.

Reviewed on: 07 Jul 2006
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Two reluctant heroes rush to defuse a bomb in a future Paris enclave ruled by violent gangs.
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Jennie Kermode ***1/2

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