Still probably best known in the UK for that BBC promo where a buff bare-chested fellow leapt and sprang across the city’s rooftops in order not to miss his favourite TV show, le parkour, or Free Running as its also known, involves the graceful surmounting of various precarious urban obstacles without dying.
True free running, as its French creators are quick to explain, is a sport-slash-martial art concerned with fluidity and elegance of movement and the desire to make one’s landscape do one’s bidding, to go wherever one wants. It’s not just an excuse to jump from one tall thing to another in order to impress your mates. That hasn’t stopped the more perilous-looking aspects of le parkour seeping into mainstream movie stunt-work. Forthcoming Bond flick Casino Royale is set to feature a daunting display of free running in its pre-titles sequence, but before we get to see that here’s a whole film of the stuff courtesy of a certain Luc Besson.
District 13 seems to be very much Besson’s baby; he produced and co-scripted it, but his contributions ultimately pale besides this film’s true selling point: its breathtaking, immaculately choreographed fight scenes and stunt work.
The film is set in a near-future Paris where the most volatile section of the city has been walled off and basically abandoned by the authorities. In the urban hell of District 13, only one man has what it takes to stand up to city’s evil crime lord. Played by parkour proponent David Belle, the frequently shirtless Leito struggles to keep the area he grew up in free of drugs. But it’s a fight he can’t win and, when his sister’s life is threatened, he ends up on the other side of the law.
The hastily sketched plot has him pairing with undercover cop Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) to re-infiltrate District 13 and recover a stolen explosive device. So far, so Escape From New York, but director Pierre Morel’s film is packed with so many jaw-dropping set pieces that the clichs don’t really bother you. Stand out amongst them is an early chase scene through a tenement building with Belle bouncing across stairwells, off balconies and through teeny-tiny windows. A shoot out in a casino where Raffaelli single-handedly takes out around thirty men is also memorable.
Besson has included just enough breaks with narrative convention and over-the-top displays of villainry to keep audiences on their toes but, unfortunately, once the story about the misplaced bomb gets into full swing the action does tail off, to be replaced by some rather heavy-handed moralising about the wrongs of the government turning their backs on the urban poor. The concluding bare-knuckle showdown between Leito and Damien is pretty spectacular, but its not enough to rescue the film completely from its attempts to be a Le Haine with more muscles.
For all its cheesiness and plot pilfering, the film is still great fun; exhilarating, entertaining and at under 90 minutes in length it doesn’t overstay its welcome. I’ll be impressed if the same can be said for the new Bond movie.