Dave on film: a double dose of action from Luc Besson

Odds are, if you’re either a guy or one of those rare female fans of kick-ass action films, you know the works of French über-action director Luc Besson. He’s the creative force behind The Transporter, Taken, The Fifth Element, The Professional and La Femme Nikita and there’s no question in my mind at least that he’s mastered the art of high-energy action cinema.

This week is an unusual one in that both films I review, District 13: Ultimatum and From Paris With Love are Besson films. Different languages, different studios, different stars, but with M. Besson involved, you just know that they’re both going to be full of wild stunts, big explosions and lots of fists hitting flesh.

Review: From Paris with Love

With a story from action wizard Luc Besson and a comfortable, if detached performance by bald, tattooed John Travolta, you can easily imagine what the actioner From Paris With Love is going to be like, and you’d be right. It’s fast-paced, only makes sense some of the time, has nice visual effects, and zooms along its 92 minute running time, an entertaining bit of cinematic fluff.

The film centers on awkward wanna-be spy and US Embassy staffer James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who, when he isn’t managing the daily schedule of stereotypically priggish Ambassador Bennington (Richard Durden), is skulking about switching license plates on parked cars, clumsily planting bugs in diplomatic offices, and dreaming of saving the world while viewing everything as a simplistic black and white chess game. His beautiful fiancée Caroline (Kasia Smutniak) encourages him while pursuing her own work as a clothing designer. She is, no surprise, more than she appears.

Tough secret agent/special forces outsider Charlie Wax (Travolta) shows up in Paris and Reece is assigned as his partner, though he’s clearly just a driverand awkward straight man for the profanity-laced and extraordinarily violent agent as they create a swath of destruction through Parisian alleyways, Chinese restaurants, office complexes and even some Parisian low income housing.

There are attempts to make the story deeper and more interesting, particularly how it glibly transitions from being a story of poisoned innocentAmerican girl vengeance against a drug cartel to an anti-terrorist theme, but From Paris With Love never really bothers to take itself too seriously and nor should we. If you like the action genre, it’s a diversion and that’s about all.

One interesting facet of From Paris with Love from a cinematic perspective is the use of a “MacGuffin”: a Chinese urn full of heroin. Reece dutifully carries it through most of the movie, even as they go through security at the Eiffel Tower, take public transportation, and more. I mean, that’s believable, right? 5 kilos of heroin in an urn and no-one notices?

When Waxman first shows up, there’s a ridiculously implausible scene where he’s swearing and arguing passionately with a French customs guard about bringing in a duffel bag full of “Rattle Snake” energy drinks. That scene has enough uses of the f-word to fill up a regular “R” movie all by itself, but it also offers up some ostensible insight into Waxman’s character when he explains to Reece that the obscenities were intended to be a diversion. There are other scenes throughout the film that suggest Waxman is a slightly deeper character than the wise-cracking, hyper-violent, obscenity-laced superagent, but it’s not really that much at the end of the day…

The movie also suffers from what so many action films seem to be afflicted with: Bulletproof Hero Syndrome. In one notable – and exciting – shootout in a mannequin factory, Waxman, armed with a pair of pistols not only survives a shootout with about a dozen semi-automatic toting gang members, but manages to kill them all without even getting a scratch. The scene is reminiscent of a memorable one from “The Matrix” in its slow-motion glory, but still, ya gotta wonder about how immune anyone would really be from the flying bullets.

There are also moments where we almost get a thoughtful dialog, like when Reece asks Waxman, after learning that there’s a terrorist component to the situation, “What if it’s never over? What if we can’t win?” But then *poof* the moment vanishes and we’re back to tallying up the bodies as the swath of murder and destruction continues from reel to reel.

Having just seen Besson’s District 13: Ultimatum, I particularly enjoyed the scenes when Waxman is chasing one of the terrorists across the rooftop: she keeps up a good pace, slipping down surfaces and ladders, jumping across gaps, but he’s not a spring chicken and so his efforts to keep up are clearly those of an older man. A nice acknowledgement of Travolta’s increasing age, even if the rest of the film shows him as extraordinarily fit and dangerous as heck, even against a half-dozen Asian street thugs.

Roger Ebert talks about “guilty pleasure movies”, films that you know aren’t great, don’t necessarily make sense, and might be asinine or idiotic, but somehow, just somehow, they’re fun and entertaining anyway. From Paris with Love isn’t a great action film by any means, but it is an entertaining flick. Grab a six pack and invite a couple of buddies over, it’ll be a fun rental.

Review: District 13: Ultimatum

Six years ago a highly athletic sporting event burst on the scene from France called Parkour. It was a bit hard to describe, but agile participants would leap off buildings, slip through tiny spaces, bounce from wall to wall, race down staircases a flight at a time and generally fly through urban landscapes, miraculously not slipping or injuring themselves. The activity was captured in a mediocre French action film called Banlieue 13 (District B13 in the USA), quickly forgotten by all but the most devoted fans.

District 13: Ultimatum picks up the story five years later and is set in a futuristic Paris where the poor are isolated in a walled ghetto called District 13. The main characters are again the D13 guerilla fighter Leïto (David Belle) and special forces captain Damien (Cyril Raffaelli). Like the first, it’s a French film with English subtitles.

District 13 has devolved into a rough neighborhood where everyone’s involved in drugs, prostitution or gambling, as is shown in a visually exciting — though overly long — high-speed fly-through set to thumping urban hip-hop music. Leïto is fighting to break down the walls and bring opportunity to the residents of D13, even as the ganglords threaten to kill him for bringing the attention of the police and changing things, and the fly-through ends with him sticking mines on segments of the wall separating D13 from the rest of Paris.

For reasons that aren’t entirely logical, the mines have about a ten second timer, so he slaps the mine on, pushes the “activate” button, and runs to the next segment, as the last explodes. No surprise, the police show up and the first Parkour chase sequence is in motion. The illogic of placing mines with very, very short fuses is typical of the weak story in this otherwise exciting action film. If you insist on stories that actually make sense and comprehensible dialog, this isn’t the movie for you.

If you’re an action fan, you already know – and respect – the name Luc Besson. Besson is both the writer and producer of District 13: Ultimatum, and it shows. There are many inside jokes and amusing homage scenes to both Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon and Jackie Chan in any of the zillion movies he’s made, and it’s no accident that the evil corporation behind the story is “Harriburton”, with a logo startlingly similar to the real-life Halliburton Corporation.

The storyline has the evil Minister Gassman (Daniel Duval) being paid off by Harriburton to destroy District 13 so that they can put up a trendy apartmenthighrise that looks like it’d be more at home in Dubai than Paris, but that’s another story. Problem is, how do you displace millions of poor without looking heartless? The solution: create a gang war and when the tension is sufficiently escalated, push that the only viable option is to evacuate the law abiding citizens from the District and destroy everyone who’s left, along with all the structures.

We don’t learn of this dastardly plot for quite a while, however, and we first meet Damien in an undercover operation in a flashy nightclub where he’s under cover as a startlingly attractive exotic dancer. One by one, he knocks out the criminals who have shown up to complete drug deals, and at one point is attacked by a half-dozen thugs while trying to preserve an original Van Gogh. It’s a scene very reminiscent of Jackie Chan and it’s pretty darn cool how it transpires.

That sequence opens, however, with a truck full of watermelons being driven out of D13 and to the nightclub, watermelons that are dropped down a chute and cut open to reveal smuggled drugs! Ta daa! Which begs the question: how did they get the drugs into the watermelons in the first place? Grew ’em around the bags of heroin?? As I warned earlier, plotline is not a strength of District 13: Ultimatum.

In a nod to the YouTube generation and the ubiquity of cellphones (not to mention a blatant rip-off of the key story element from the action filmEnemy of the State), some kids are enjoying music from their cars when the police show up, then the bad guys show up. Evil deeds transpire without them knowing that the kids are busy videotaping. That videotape then becomes the proof that Leïto and Damien need to show Le Présidente (Philippe Torreton) that Gassman and his crew are up to no good.

There’s not much more to say about the story and dialog in District 13: Ultimatum. This is not an indie film that showcases extraordinary storytelling and beautiful, carefully crafted speeches, but a slam-bang action film that showcases stunts and action sequences with just enough of a storyline to give it a narrative direction.

To be fair, though, I really enjoyed District 13: Ultimatum because the action sequences are terrific, even with an occasional wry line of dialog that underscores Besson and director Patrick Alessandrin were well aware that they weren’t creating a profound contribution to the art of cinema.

The music is also worth a mention: it’s solid hip-hop and goes very well with the movie, one of the best action soundtracks I’ve heard in a while. I hope that the US distributors, Magnet Entertainment and Magnolia Home Entertainment, make it available. It’s that good.

Finally, I’ll just reiterate that there’s not much to District 13: Ultimatum other than a loosely connected series of action sequences, but that they’re generally so good that I was easily able to forgive the shortcomings of the film and have a good time in the theater. Don’t expect a masterpiece, even in the action genre, but yeah, District 13: Ultimatum is a pretty darn entertaining film nonetheless.