I like to think that my critical credentials on the French, such as they are, allow me a certain modicum of objectivity. Though I'll cheerfully cop to being a fan of Balzac, Flaubert, and Catherine Deneuve, and while that Gothic architecture in Paris really knocks my socks off, I've never been particularly partial to heavy sauces or wearing a beret and don't even get me started on French foreign policy. I tell you all this in advance so that you will hopefully not dismiss the following as simply the blatherings of a slavishly devoted Francophile who'd produce a rave review at the drop of a chapeau.
It may be that Hollywood producers – and producers of action movies in particular – need to start paying more attention to the French.
Pourquoi, you might ask?
Anyone who's been looking at this year's first crop of American action/adventure summer movies could be, well, somewhat underwhelmed. It's not that the movies are bad, particularly, because they're not. They're just ... fine, is all. They get us from point A to B without any particular panache or excitement, just a lot of expensive explosions and special effects. They're highly impressive and eminently forgettable at the same time.
Has anyone who's seen "Mission Impossible 3", a perfectly competent expansion of one of director J.J. Abrams's old "Alias" episodes (complete with his trademark flashback structure), felt anything like excitement or joy in recalling it? For the few of you who saw "Poseidon," weren't you struck by the sense that the movie was vastly too expensive for the quality of the perfectly adequately thrills it professionally delivered? And the same goes for the much maligned "The Da Vinci Code," and "X-Men 3," and even "Cars", that actioner for the G-rated set.
But last week, I saw "District B13", and I can't get it out of my head. "District B13," or "Banlieu 13" in its original title (it was released in France in 2004), is, like most other action movies, hardly the possessor of the world's most original conceit: boy meets bad guy. Bad guy kidnaps boy's sister. Bad guy comes into possession of neutron bomb that can devastate Paris. Boy must team up with Cop Who Does Things His Own Way And Works Alone to rescue sister and City of Light before millions of people bite the big baguette. You know, the usual.
But the usual isn't bad; in fact, it's what we want in a genre movie. No one comes out of a great romantic comedy saying, "I can't believe I paid ten bucks to see two attractive people overcome obstacles to find happiness together – again." Where the American movies are going wrong – and where "District B13" can serve as an instructive counterexample – is that they tend to replace style with spectacle, gritty panache with the sheen of expensive effects. And ultimately, that's a losing proposition.
"District B13," for example, is produced and co-written by Luc Besson, a man who knows from style (think "La Femme Nikita"), and co-stars a man named David Belle. Belle, generally unknown to American audiences, is apparently more famous in France for being one of the inventors of a sport called parkour, which, according to the good folks at imdb.com, consists of "moving freely in a natural area, including climbing on buildings and taking on whatever is in your way."
That sense of free motion, of loose-limbed energy, pervades "District B13" as Belle and his partner, Cyril Raffaeli, jump, dive, somersault, flip, and run on top of apartment buildings, through windows, and around construction sites as they are chased by assorted bad types in the drug trade. You name it, they pretty much do it. And they do it so naturally and easily that you just sit there amazed; it's defiantly, excitingly, low-tech, and so it pounds your pulse the way that flying mutants, no matter how painstakingly rendered, can't manage to do. There's no sense of the wire work or green screening so omnipresent now in American action movies; it's just people working so hard at doing incredible stunts that they don't seem to be working at all. That, my friends, is panache and excitement, and it looks a lot better in "District B13" than in most of the American movies of the last two months.
I don't mean to disparage computer graphics as a tool; it's responsible for some incredible and otherwise impossible moments in the movies. And I'm sure that American stuntmen and action types could, if the writers and producers let them, create moments that are easily the equal of those in "District B13." I sure hope they do.