Brick Mansions (Relativity Media, PG-13)

brick mansions_75I can’t in good conscience recommend Brick Mansions when District 13 is available on Netflix Instant for anyone to watch. 

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One of the best pure action movies of the last decade is Banlieue 13, which in America was released as District B13. When I say “pure action” that means that I don’t necessarily consider it a great movie, but the action is so fantastic and inventive that it makes up for any story shortcomings. That film was so great because of the uniquely talented performers involved, so it seems like it wouldn’t be a strong contender for an American remake, which of course means that now we have one. In a post-District 9 world, we can’t call a movie District 13, so instead we get the forgettable title Brick Mansions. And of course, like the studio stooge that I am, I found myself curious about this movie that never needed to be made.

If you saw the original film, the story is pretty much identical. A cop named Damien is sent into the projects, which in this near future have been walled off a la Escape from New York, and has to team up with local resident Lino to retrieve and disarm a bomb from the head crime boss. It has the same perfect structure of the original, in which we get individual action scenes setting up the two leads, we learn what their mission will be, we see them fight, then join forces, then fight again, and eventually save the day, and all in less than 90 minutes. It’s a classic buddy movie formula, and it’s classic because it works.

Lino is played by David Belle. If you don’t know who David Belle is, he is one of the inventers of parkour, and he played this same role in District B13. This was a smart move on the part of the filmmakers. Belle was the real star of the original film and his parkour assisted combat was the main selling point. I remember seeing District B13 when it came out and being completely blown away by what I was seeing. Now, I’ve seen parkour in everything from Casino Royale to Punisher: Warzone (which featured the worst parkour ever, but also the best scene of someone being hit by a rocket launcher and exploding mid-parkour) and you know what, despite the fact that the surprise factor is gone, it still kind of takes my breath away. American viewers don’t know David Belle, but you could feel the audience engaging every time he came on screen. He’s magnetic, and the movie benefits greatly from having him.

Of course casting David Belle makes it tougher on his co-star, the late Paul Walker. Walker is obviously a very fit, active guy, but he’s not the martial arts master that Cyril Raffaelli was in the original film. The biggest compliment I can give Brick Mansions is that it does a terrific job of selling the fact that these two make a good team. Walker’s action scenes are tweaked to play more to his strengths, and there is also some good humor derived from the fact that he can’t achieve the physical feats that Belle can. The movie doesn’t try to sell us on these two being equals. They have different skills and accommodate each other well. It is weird seeing Belle play out these same scenes with someone other than Raffaelli, and likewise, it’s strange to see Walker in this cop/criminal bromance with a guy who isn’t Vin Diesel. It’s almost like they are cheating on their respective significant others, but they are both charismatic enough to make this movie fun.

Speaking of charisma, the villain is played by RZA. This is a pretty different characterization from the original, in which the villain was a sleazy scumbag. RZA plays a much more refined villain who wears nice suits, shows off his skills as a gourmet chef, and has a fairly solid, if not completely straight, moral code. Of course he delivers some truly insane dialogue, but he’s a smart guy and he really brings the social commentary that is inherent in the story to the forefront. Transposing this story of class warfare and the questions of how much government cares about its less fortunate citizens to an American setting actually makes a pretty good case for this remake. If it has to exist, I’m glad it kept some of these themes, and actually built on them, if only a little bit.

I can’t in good conscience recommend Brick Mansions when District 13 is available on Netflix Instant for anyone to watch. The original is better, and the remake is not different enough to justify paying to see it in a theater. In fact, some of the scenes are so similar and some of the supporting actor’s line readings are so stilted that it actually felt like I was watching a dubbed version of the original. That said, this movie is more fun than the original’s sequel (that one was released here as District 13: Ultimatum) and it’s a pretty solid remake. But there is one thing about this movie that really sets it apart from the original, and that’s the ending. The actual content is mostly the same, but the tone is way more cheesy, in a way that had me laughing my ass off. The ending is completely ridiculous, but it’s also completely earnest, down to a freeze frame on a fist bump. It’s hilarious, and it honestly left me with a very warm feeling towards the whole endeavor. It in no way replaces the original, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t have fun. | Sean Lass

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