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Review: The parkour film 'Brick Mansions' needs more parkour

"Brick Mansions," the American remake of the French parkour film "District B13," is a rough, cheap retread that ruins its best stunts with hectic editing.

Parkour co-inventor David Belle is seen doing on of the few bits of parkour in "Brick Mansions." Credit: Philippe Bosse Parkour co-inventor David Belle is seen doing on of the few bits of parkour in "Brick Mansions."
Credit: Philippe Bosse

‘Brick Mansions’
Director: Camille Delamarre
Stars: Paul Walker, David Belle
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

Ten years ago the French action film “District B13” introduced movies to parkour. What is parkour? It’s not a martial art but a “holistic training discipline” in which participants navigate barriers, jump over walls and sometimes between buildings. It’s a no-brainer for movies — except that movies have barely used it. “Casino Royale” was frontloaded with a parkour sequence, but the practice has unaccountably refused to blossom, and only a handful seem to know how to do it properly.

Indeed, “Brick Mansions” — the very belated American remake of “District B13” — only has one guy who can do parkour. He’s David Belle, one of its inventors and star of the original. He reprises his role as Lino (Leito in the original), a taciturn beefcake who lives in the titular locale: an “Escape From New York”-style compound that has walled-off not only criminals but anyone below the poverty line from everyone else. The setting for this one, of course, is Detroit.

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Everything is basically the same: An officer, Paul Walker’s Damien, has to sneak into Brick Mansions, defuse a bomb and take down an infamous kingpin (marital arts superfan Rza, mostly present to whip out a gratuitous “C.R.E.A.M.” nod). Even with the political axe to grind, it’s all an excuse for parkour — or it would be if there was much parkour, or if you could see the parkour when it was infrequently busted out.

The original was unusual in modern action cinema by using long takes — as with dancing, the only way to appreciate the skill that goes into Belle and company doing jaw-dropping, lightning fast moves, or sometimes three or four of them in a row, and THEN jumping from a roof into an adjacent window. But for whatever reason — Belle’s age, the fact that no one but Belle can do parkour — director Camille Delamarre cuts the hell out of the action. He stresses blunt force, not balletic skill. One building leap gets diced into six shots, completely ruining the stunt. If you can’t see Belle do what he does in one take, then it just looks like mere movie magic.

Paul Walker joins David Belle in the remake of the French action film "District B13." Credit: Philippe Bosse Paul Walker joins David Belle in the remake of the French action film "District B13."
Credit: Philippe Bosse

There’s little parkour anyway. More often than not this is a generic action picture, peppered with cool stunts you wish you could see clearly. The film follows the original fairly closely — it too has been written by Eurotrash mega-auteur Luc Besson — so it feels like it should hypothetically work. But the mimicry is off, and the film looks distractingly cheap and corner-cutting. The film’s stupidity actually becomes a liability at times, as when we’re asked to remember about a tiny detail no audience member would in a million years think to notice. Maybe the original seemed less asinine when you had to read it.

Paul Walker is one of the better things about “Brick Mansions,” and not only because this is one of his final works. It was easy while he was alive to take his granite-Abercrombie presence for granted, but its clear he’d happened upon the right balance of badassery and everyguy appeal. He makes non-jokes if not funny, exactly, then affable. There’s a single good gag (one borrowed, more or less, from “Casino Royale”), where Lino effortlessly careens himself up a wall and over, throwing himself through a small hole — an impossibly cool move that leaves Damien dumbstruck, forced to come up with a more brutish alternative. For about 20 seconds, “Brick Mansions” isn’t merely a film that exists because people hate to read at the movies.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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