After a recent press screening of “Brick Mansions,” one critic turned to another and whined, in the sad, dying light of the closing credits, “What did they do to my movie?”
The movie he was talking about is “District B13,” the 2004 French action flick on which “Brick Mansions” is based. And he’s not likely to be alone in his dismay. If you’ve seen the earlier cult hit and enjoyed its propulsive physicality — featuring stunts inspired by the French-born discipline of parkour, a fluid mix of acrobatics and dance, also known as freerunning — this watered-down American version, while similar in many respects, may be a huge disappointment.
Set in a dystopian near-future, in a crime-ridden, walled-off slum, both movies revolve around the efforts of two heroes — one an idealistic undercover cop, the other a jaded citizen-crusader — to find and defuse a bomb that has been hidden in that slum. The setting of the first film was Paris; here, it’s Detroit, 2018. Both films have the stylishly gritty look, and preposterous premise, of a video game.
Reprising his role as the citizen hero — called Leito in the first film, and Lino here — is Frenchman David Belle. Belle, a walking special effect regarded as one of the founders of parkour, is quite possibly the only good reason to see the new film. Unfortunately, Belle’s 2004 co-star, scrappy French stuntman Cyril Raffaelli, has been replaced by Paul Walker in the role of the police officer. The late star of the “Fast and Furious” franchise, who died last year in a car accident, Walker is likable enough. But he just can’t keep up with Belle, who, even 10 years after his breakout role, is a charismatic dynamo on screen.
The action, which in addition to traditional fistfights involves diving through windows and bouncing off walls — and sometimes people — suffers considerably from Walker’s obvious deficiencies as a physical performer. Visually, “Brick Mansions” is a duller and more conventional film than “District B13,“ which was, if nothing else, a sourball-flavored form of eye candy.
But there are other problems, both large and small. Chief among them is the movie’s new villain: Tremaine, a drug lord (rapper-actor RZA) who has both the bomb and a hostage, in the form of Lino’s ex-girlfriend (Catalina Denis). As reworked by Luc Besson, who produced and co-wrote both films, the bad guy now undergoes a strange transformation over the course of the story, which takes him from a monster to, well, something else entirely.
Without giving anything away, Tremaine’s narrative arc is, simply put, a load of bunkum. By introducing a major character in whom audiences can no longer believe — let alone root against — Besson sabotages the power of his tale, which requires starkly defined moral absolutes.
Is “Brick Mansions” a complete waste of time? Maybe not, if you have nothing to compare it to. Instead, though, I’d recommend renting “District B13” and calling it a day. To paraphrase the old song: How you gonna keep ’em down in Detroit, after they’ve seen Paree?
(90 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for vioence, obscenity and drug use.