TIFF Report: Banlieue 13 Review
What is there to say about this film that hasn't been said here before? The first in what will surely be many starring roles for David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli, Banlieue 13 is a near future actionioner built around the unique and dazzling physical abilities of its two stars. How unique? Well, Belle is the founder of an entirely new extreme sport known as parkour.
Owing an obvious debt to Escape From New York , Banlieue 13 is set in a hypothetical Paris in 2010. Crime has spiraled so out of control that the government has entirely given up on certain neighborhoods and walled them in, content to let lawlessness reign there as long as it is contained and cannot spill over to Paris proper. In the worst of these areas, Banlieue 13, a vigilante name Leito (David Belle) has been fighting a long battle against the forces of Taha, a criminal overlord so powerful he can field a virtual army. When Leito succeeds in capturing Taha and bringing him to the border police he is betrayed by them: not only do they refuse to take Taha in, fearing violent reprisal from the mob outside their door, but they imprison Leito and give Taha Leito's sister.
Cut forward a few months and we meet the other half of this buddy equation, idealistic young cop Damien (Rafaelli), a martial arts expert who specializes in deep cover infiltration. Following a successful mission Damien is hauled before his superiors and given his most dangerous mission. An experimental neutron bomb has been hijacked and taken to Banlieue 13 where it is in Taha's hands. Making matters worse the bomb had a booby trap trigger sequence – once the case was opened it would begin a countdown to explode in only twenty four hours. Taha has, of course, already opened the case. Damien must recruit Leito as a guide and infiltrate the neighborhood to defuse the bomb before time runs out.
Banlieue 13 is, quite simply a ride. Don't go looking for a lot of depth, but for high energy, stylish action it's hard to beat. Yes, it is rather front loaded on the action but the action is quite simply stunning. Belle and Rafaelli both get lengthy early sequences to stru their stuff and strut they do. Rafaelli has squared off on screen against Jet Li in the past without looking out of place and here he gets to show the full extent of his skills, leaping, kicking and flipping his way through an angry mob of gun wielding criminals. Belles intro is even more impressive as he leads a mob of angry gangsters on a merry chase over, under, beside and trhough a series of high rise buildings. And I'm not kidding about that at all … Belle's particular discipline is a mixture of free climbing, acrobatics, and a willingness to fling yourself bodily from rooftop to rooftop. You have never seen anyone quite like him before.
Banlieue succeeds were earlier parkour themed films Yamakasi and Les Fils Du Vent fell flat for a number of reasons. First, they found a believable scenario to fully exploit Belle's unique talents. Second, Belle and Rafaelli both are blessed with natural charisma and screen presence to match their impressive physical skills. Third, their skills are simply stunning – there are no wires are digital effects used to augment the action sequences whatsoever – and, having trained together for years, the pair work together with startling precision. And fourth, the supporting cast is uniformly strong, particularly the villainous Taha, played with scene chewing abandon by one of the film's screen writers and his chief henchman K2 who strikes a near perfect balance of physical menace, blustering humor and oafish charm.
When we think martial arts films we tend to think only of Asia. If Rafaelli and Belle have anything to say about that we will soon be looking to France with increasing regularity.