All Class: The Surprisingly Subversive ‘Brick Mansions’
2004’s District B13 is a crime thriller produced and cowritten by Luc Besson, set inside an ugly, marginal Parisian public-housing complex beset with drug lords, heavy artillery, and parkour. Loosely, it involves a thug and a cop squaring off against the complex’s gangsters. The thug and cop are white. The drug lord and his henchmen are Arab and African. And every time the racial politics are about to make you roll your eyes, a long foot chase culminates with someone hopping up the side of a building or flying through a transom. Good parkour will do that. Eventually, a bomb, a rocket, and some class conspiracy arrive, and the movie goes from cartoonish action to scandalous incrimination. After I saw it, I had only two words — Bra. Vo. — and one thought: This deserves to be a hit in the U.S., but it’s too French.
Not anymore. Being the ingenious opportunist he is, Besson has concocted a remake. Brick Mansions is just like B13, but set in Detroit with Paul Walker and RZA. It, too, adheres to its own logic, which is to say it adheres to almost none at all. Walker plays Damien, the undercover cop who, at the behest of the city and to avenge his murdered father, winds up inside Detroit’s Brick Mansions ghetto, a desolate mini metropolis made of crime and concrete. He teams with Lino (David Belle), a stand-up ruffian who trashes bags and bags of a kingpin’s stash, flees in high-flying style, and then returns after the kingpin (RZA) makes off with Lola (Catalina Denis), Lino’s girl.
This isn’t an American version, per se. It was filmed in Canada, and you’re never entirely convinced Besson didn’t pick Detroit because, if said wrong, “Detroit” sounds French. None of the accents or cadences or phrasing make sense. Belle is a handsome French stunt choreographer who starred in the first movie and its only somewhat less outlandish 2009 sequel. Like almost everyone else here, he sounds dubbed. The camera rarely lingers long enough on any face to let you know what’s going on. After a while, even Walker’s Southern California–surfer line delivery seems suspiciously foreign — and not just for Detroit.
The whole movie feels somehow even more cartoonishly European than B13. But the plot twist still really gets to the audience. This is ultimately — frankly, too ultimately (you feel all 89 minutes) — a movie about class warfare and social oppression that isn’t remotely science-fictional. It’s real, and as dumb as this remake is, it sends you home thinking. Having RZA explain the conspiracy as he does was probably unnecessary, but he’s got all the best lines. So why not? (The night I saw the movie, he did an introduction and then sat down with a soda and a bag of popcorn and watched the whole thing.) Even so, by the time one character drives to an actual mansion in a BMW, you’re pretty sure Besson has forgotten what this movie’s about and where it’s set.
But director Camille Delamarre was until this film — his first — an editor. Working with a good cinematographer (Christophe Collette) and stunt coordinator (Alexandre Cadieux), he knows how to stage and assemble an action sequence for maximum jolt. I’m fond of the slow-motion reverse shots he provides for foot-to-face or lighting fixture–to-body impacts. There’s a lot less parkour than in the original movie. Belle is thicker and less airborne now than he was in 2004. But he’s the only guy in the movie who knows how to move like this. (Cyril Raffaelli played the cop in B13, and he was as athletic as Belle; the movie is basically a love affair between their different kineses.) Ten years ago, parkour was edgy urban disruption (acrobatics for clean breaks), and so chic that Madonna stole it for one of her world tours. It made insurgent sense in B13. Now, it’s just a cool thing Belle can do.
There is a good moment when Lino escapes RZA’s goons through a tight, transomlike space and Damien has to improvise a noisier, more labor-intensive exit. Walker died last year in a car accident, and this is said to be his last complete film. You get the sense that Brick Mansions was just Besson capitalizing on Walker’s automotive bona fides, which the movies, of course, are going to miss. He gets one happy scene behind the wheel of a Mustang that leaves Belle impressed and implausibly terrified. When Walker was driving, he was a star.