Paul Walker would have made a great Steve McQueen. Indeed, if there is such a thing as a modern Steve McQueen, it might just be Paul Walker. He was at home behind the wheel of a fast car, he was charismatic without trying too hard, he had wonderful blue eyes, and he had great comic timing. He was also a pretty solid actor during his life, though he was more popular than critically respected. If you want a guy to look awesome driving a car, Paul Walker was the guy to do so, and he’s the acting center of Brick Mansions, an Americanization of Luc Besson’s impressive Euro-action flick Banlieue 13 (AKA District 13 or District B13 if you’re American).
Walker plays Damien, a Detroit police detective who is one of the best undercover agents in the police force. When you need to take down a drug kingpin and have someone undercover for a year at a time, that’d be Damien. Being a police officer is the family business; Damien’s father was also a cop who was killed by the vicious drug kingpin and arms dealer Tremaine (RZA), the overlord of the titular Brick Mansions. You see, in the near future, Detroit’s most famous housing project got so bad that the cops put a wall around it, cut off all civic services, and left the ghetto to rot despite it being very valuable real-estate (think of Robocop 3).
Unsurprisingly, this ends up being a bad idea. A government bomb gets hijacked by Tremaine and his crew, and when the case is opened up improperly, the bomb is armed. Damien has to go in disarm the bomb, but since he’s not from Brick Mansions, he needs an expert. Enter Lino (David Belle), a Frenchman who lived in Brick Mansions until he got tangled up with some crooked cops and got sent to jail. Now it’s up to Damien and Lino to get into Brick Mansions, disarm the bomb, and avoid being killed by Tremaine and his gangster cohorts.
Basically, it’s the same story as the original B13, with Luc Besson and Bibi Naceri translating their original tale from French to English and putting it into the hands of Besson’s longtime editor, Camille Delamarre. It’s a little more awkward due to the move from Paris to Detroit, as it adds a layer of racial politics to the walling in of a mostly-black housing project by a mostly-white series of city decision makers. Sure, there are token non-black people within Brick Mansions, including the massive Robert Maillet (WWE’s Kurrgan, lots of other giant roles), but most of the bad guy power structure, including the sadistic Rayzah (Ayisha Issa) and K2 (Gouchy Boy), are black. This is never really addressed directly; instead Brick Mansions keeps the exact same plot and structure as the original film and chooses to ignore the racial implications of a couple of white folks saving the ghetto.
One good thing about the film is that it doesn’t give you a lot of chance to actually ponder its political message. It’s hard to do a lot of thinking when David Belle is doing his thing. The star of the first film and its French-language sequel, he’s also a renowned stuntman and one of the founders of parkour, which makes him a borderline physical marvel when he’s doing his thing on screen. The opening chase is spectacular. However, Belle isn’t a great actor (and he’s not really called to be one) and his obvious dubbing can be distracting during the acting scenes. Paul Walker’s a fine actor and is more than able to handle the protagonist role. RZA is still a rapper/actor and hasn’t made the transition to actor/rapper, but I actually liked Gouchy Boy as the heavy (literally and figuratively), and he’s a fun screen presence.
Given that this is an action movie from an action movie script from an action movie editor, the question I should be answering is “how’s the action?” When the movie is focusing on its parkour and stunt work, it’s very entertaining. I’m not a huge fan of how Camille Delamarre cuts the movie, and the editing can be downright distracting. I know that Paul Walker wouldn’t be doing much in the way of parkour, and I know that some of the stunts that David Belle does were probably performed by stuntmen due to liability issues, but a lot of the standard jumping and acrobatics are things that I would have liked to see with a little less editing and camera angle interruptions. It’s as if Delamarre isn’t terribly confident in his set pieces, so he’s trying to make them a little more exciting by chopping them up; I doubt the audience has yet to be bored by watching someone defy the laws of physics like a white Jackie Chan, so I’m not sure what about the film needed to be made more exciting. Brick Mansions is one of the rare occasions when a more static shooting style would’ve made things more exciting, not less.
Still, by the standards of a summer action movie, Brick Mansions is pretty successful. David Belle is a physical marvel, Paul Walker is a good action lead, and there’s enough going on in terms of fight scenes and car chases to hold the attention. It’s clever enough and occasionally improves on the set pieces of the original film without detracting from it in any way. As American adaptations go, it wasn’t all that bad; the original is better, but this was true to the spirits. Watching guys do awesome stunts, get into fights, and crack a rare joke or two? There are worse ways to spend 90 minutes.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan is glad that the remake took long enough that everyone got over the parkour fatigue of the mid 2000s. Could’ve used a RZA soundtrack, though! Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.
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