Paris, 2010. As crime spirals out of control, the government constructs a wall around the highest risk housing project – District 13. When a gang in the district steals a neutron bomb and threatens to use it, undercover cop Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli) must work with criminal Leïto (David Belle) a man who grew up in the district, to infiltrate the gang and defuse the bomb before it’s too late.
District 13 is a French action film that’s best known for its use of parkour in its action sequences. It’s the two leads and each of their fighting styles that makes District 13 stand out. The difference in fighting styles add layers to their characters as they are two men who may come from the same city, but they are from two completely different worlds.
David Belle is often deemed to be one of the founders and a pioneer of Parkour, having coined the term based on training and teachings from his father, and every time you see him jump, climb or roll in District 13 he’s doing it without the use of wires. District 13 opens with a 3-minute chase sequence in an apartment building as Belle’s Leïto runs from a dozen men. From that moment, you know exactly what kind of film you’re going to get. It’s innovative and thrilling as Leïto smashes through windows, swings on ropes, jumps between banisters in a stairwell, and leaps from the roof of one high-rise building to another.
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Cyril Raffaelli is a stuntman who knows karate and Chinese marital arts. He’s been the stunt coordinator or fight choreographer on dozens of films and was the fight choreographer on District 13. When you’re introduced to Raffaelli’s Damien, he’s undercover in a casino but soon the bullets start flying and he must fight his way out. He kicks, shoots and punches the many bad guys who stand in his way and the wide shots capture every moment so there’s no doubt it’s him in the centre of the action.
Damien’s fighting style is cleaner and more efficient, clearly built on years of formal training as he uses martial arts skills to take down his opponents. Whereas Leïto uses his surroundings. He can throw a punch but he’s much more likely to use his environment to avoid an opponent or to cause them to harm themselves.
It’s not just their fighting styles and being opposite sides of the law that make Damien and Leïto an interesting crime-fighting duo. It’s how they are on opposite sides when it comes to idealism vs cynicism. The district has been left to ruin. As Leïto says he had to leave school at 16 because all the schools closed, and in the end as crime spiralled out of control, the government just built a wall around the dangerous district and left the people in there to deal with it. Leïto is a cynic having been abandoned by the government and left to do the best he can to keep his neighbourhood clean of drugs and violence. While Damien is an idealist, believing in the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, and that makes him believe in the system and elected officials can make things better.
District 13 is a fun action film but with its themes of walls and governments giving up on certain portions of its population, and lumping all the innocent people with the dangerous ones based solely on where they live, it unfortunately feels even more relevant than when it was released 15 years ago. The filmmakers probably didn’t set out to make a statement, but it’s hard not to be on Leïto’s side when you see how he is a good guy. He’s the epitome of the Neighbourhood Friendly Gangster, he steals drugs so he can destroy them, he keeps his neighbourhood safe from the more dangerous and powerful criminals, and his smart and resourceful. But he is in that role because the neighbourhood he’s grown up in has little to no police presence, no funding from the government, and its people have been left to fend for themselves.
The plot of District 13 might be simple but that allows the stars to show off their skills and every fight is gritty and bruising. All the fight scenes and stunts are shot with a steady hand and it isn’t overly edited so you can follow the action easily. One complaint that’s often heard nowadays about action films is that they’re so overly edited that even when you do have a talented actor on screen who can do the martial arts or the stunts for real, you can’t see it. That’s not the case in District 13 as Belle and Raffaelli are always in full view as they punch, kick and leap across the city to save the day. The two actors have great chemistry meaning that when Leïto and Damien have snarky banter as they slowly learn to trust one another, it is a lot of fun too.
If you’re on the fence about giving District 13 a go, maybe this will help tip the scales – it’s one of those wonderful films where its runtime is under 90 minutes. Who could say no to a succinct action film with compelling characters and amazing stunts?
Directed by: Pierre Morel
Cast: David Belle, Cyril Raffaelli, Dany Verissimo, Tony D’Amario, Larbi Naceri