Action Brick Mansions

Free Running Film Review: Brick Mansions

April 24, 2014Ben MK

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Parkour brothers

By Ben Mk

For the uninitiated, Parkour is more than a sport — it's an art form, where the objective of getting from Point A to Point B in the quickest way possible demands strength, agility and focus. Its inclusion in films like Casino Royale and The Bourne Ultimatum have helped it to gain mainstream notoriety; but no films have been as instrumental in bringing Parkour to the masses as Luc Besson's 2004 film, Banlieue 13, and its 2009 sequel, Banlieue 13: Ultimatum — both of which starred Parkour's founder, David Belle. Now, ten years later, Besson and Belle are bringing the free running action stateside, with the Banlieue 13 remake, Brick Mansions.

This time, the story unfolds in 2018 Detroit (as opposed to 2010 Paris), where — with shades of Escape from New York — the government has erected a massive wall around an über-dangerous section of the city known as Brick Mansions. Cordoned off from the rest of the civilian population, and with no law enforcement presence whatsoever, crime runs rampant within its slums; and their denizens have taken it upon themselves to govern them as they see fit. Some, like criminal kingpin Tremaine Alexander (RZA), have seized the opportunity to build an empire for themselves; while others, like ex-con Lino Dupree (David Belle), try their best to uphold the safety of the neighborhood — even if that means making enemies with dangerous men like Tremaine.

Outside its walls, no police officer dares to venture inside Brick Mansions, except for one: Damien Collier (Paul Walker), an undercover cop with an axe to grind (and maybe even a little bit of a death wish). When the powers that be inform him that Tremaine has hijacked an armored vehicle and stolen its payload — a neutron bomb — Damien is eager for the opportunity to settle the score with his nemesis once and for all. There's just one catch: he has mere hours to find and disarm the device before it detonates, killing millions. And that's where Lino — who also happens to know Brick Mansions inside and out — factors into the plan; for Damien will need his help in order to locate Tremaine — and the bomb — in time. Luckily for Damien, Lino has ample cause for joining the mission, as Tremaine is also holding Lino's girlfriend, Lola (Catalina Denis), captive, in retaliation for his vigilantism.

Just as Banlieue 13 marked the directorial debut of cinematographer Pierre Morel, editor-turned-director Camille Delamarre (who previously worked with Besson on Transporter 3, Taken 2 and Lockout) cuts his teeth on Brick Mansions, working from a screenplay by Besson himself. From bare-fisted brawls to bullet-riddled car chases, Delamarre churns out action sequences that are brisk and well-choreographed, hitting many of the same beats as the original. But Banlieue 13 still ranks as the superior film, thanks to its more inventive (and engaging) action set pieces and grittier tone. In contrast, pseudo-gritty is a more apropos description of Brick Mansions. It has all the right ingredients — gangs, guns and violence — but instead, Delamarre and Besson emphasize the more cartoonish aspects of the plot — which reach their zenith in a scene where a character all but sees cartoon birds encircling his head (though he does hear them), after being concussed with a brick.

But of course, Brick Mansions will forever be remembered as one of Paul Walker's final films. And though it won't redefine his legacy, it is a fair representation of his acting prowess, typifying his appeal as both a leading man and an action star. The nature of the material doesn't lend itself to showcasing his full range as a dramatic actor (unlike his part in the Hurricane Katrina drama, Hours), but Walker is a good fit for his role, turning in a performance that echoes his portrayal of officer Brian O'Connor, in the first instalment of the Fast and the Furious franchise. And his natural rapport with Belle, his on-screen partner in crime, goes a long way in selling the authenticity of their situation. The original film was partially driven by the interplay between their two characters, but Besson's updated screenplay transforms it into somewhat of a three-character dynamic, by throwing RZA — whose character is less of an archetypal villain than his Banlieue 13 counterpart — into the mix. Fortunately, their mutual chemistry works to the film's advantage; and it not only helps their performances rise above the often ham-fisted dialog, but it also makes their interactions one of the highlights of the picture.

The Bottom Line

Banlieue 13 may have been saddled with a B-movie premise, but it was infused with exhilarating stunt work and a certain edginess that helped to elevate it above its genre competition. Brick Mansions tackles a nearly-identical premise, but despite admirable efforts on the part of Walker, Belle and RZA, it can't avoid being eclipsed by its predecessor. As a standalone piece of action cinema, it's certainly a decent — if not brazenly campy — thrill ride. And to their credit, Delamarre and Besson imbue Brick Mansions with the same spirit as Banlieue 13. But it feels like some of what made the first film so uniquely appealing has been lost in translation. [★★★]

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