At a time when the politics of wall building is very much in the news, District 13 presents us with a near-future world where the suburbs of Paris have been walled off to contain the violence brooding within. Growing up in such a suburb, Leito (David Belle) is a man with no grand ambitions. All he wants is to protect his apartment building, to preserve one bright spot, whilst everything around him goes to hell. But after he puts his trust in the wrong people, he is compelled to team up with a dedicated cop (Cyril Raffaelli) to hunt down a missing bomb, which could claim millions of lives.

With this film, Luc Besson (as a writer, rather than a director here) goes back to his roots, exploring the lives of the Paris poor and outsiders in a world not so very far removed from our own. Though simplistic, his story is passionately told, and the actors convince in the uncomplicated way that is a staple of all good action movies, and there's certainly enough on display, with a plethora of chases, fights and shoot-outs. Of these, the fights are the most impressive, superbly choreographed and featuring great work from professional stuntman Raffaelli.

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Rookie director Pierre Morel makes superb use of the complex urban environment so that there are plenty of surprises and the flow of the action is hard to predict. When events go into slow motion, they do so for a reason, to show the detail of what's happening, rather than just because somebody thought it would look pretty. Early on, the chase scenes are compelling in the same way, wide-ranging and inventive, but there's only so much one can do with the setting in this regard, so they gradually lose their power. Nevertheless, there are impressive gymnastics to watch and suitably ugly accidents to keep the nerves in edge.

Like much of Besson's early work, District 13 is heavily stylised, sometimes at the expense of substance - yet the style is just as much a part of its character as the action. Scenes of gang brutality are intercut with beautiful cinematography, essential to our understanding of why Leito is so devoted to his home. The pacing is generally good, though it slows down just a little too much towards the end, in time for some clumsy exposition.

Fans of martial arts will encounter many more impressive films than this, but as a piece of action cinema it certainly delivers, and has a spirit which is too often missing from its ilk.

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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Anton Bitel ***

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