Bright Lights Film Journal

The Muscles from Bois de Bologne: David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli Kick Gallic Butt in Pierre Morel’s District B-13

Do not be alarmed, monsieur. We come from France. We are here to eat your sausages.

Is France as fucked up as the U.S.? According to Pierre Morel, the answer to that question is a big fat mai oui. In District B-13 (or Banlieue 13 en français) he paints a picture of the Great Nation as a land of heroin deals, automatic weapons, and razor wire, a country where crime is the only commerce, ennui the only emotion, and greed the only passion.

The year is 2010, and large chunks of France have been cut off from civilization. Those inside live in concrete warrens without police, schools, or any other social services. Gangsters rule the roost, of course, dealing in heroin and sporting enough heavy artillery to make the entire editorial staff of Guns and Ammo decamp for Frogland. But there’s one dude, Leïto (David Belle), who’s mad as hell and won’t take it any more. He’s waging a one-man war on drugs. His finely honed kung-fu skills and acrobatic derring-do keep him one step ahead of the bruisers dispatched to dispatch him by drug lord Taha (Larbi Naceri), but he makes the mistake of trusting a French bureaucrat1 and ends up locked in a stainless-steel cell while his adorable sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) becomes Taha’s drugged-out sex slave.

In another extended set-piece, we encounter undercover cop Damien (Cyril Rafaelli), another kung-fu master, engineering a takedown of a massive gambling den. When he’s done, Damien called in to respond to a major foutu — a neutron bomb is missing! In District B-13! But who can guide him through that hellhole? Who but Leïto?

And so the cop and the convict, the law and the vigilante join hands. Ultimately, they triumph over Taha and his goons, only to discover (of course) that they’ve been set up by the bureaucrats. The suits wanted the bomb to be stolen, so they could detonate it in District B-13, thereby saving civilization, or at least ensuring themselves a decent holiday.

Despite some funny lines and clever twists, District B-13 is no Enter the Dragon, hard as it tries to be. Belle and Raffaelli are serious martial artists, but much of the action is shot with fast film or other tricks, which seems exactly the wrong thing to do if you want to emphasize that your stars are actually doing the things we see them doing. There is a bit at the end where the two take on a man mountain in true Jackie Chan style, but otherwise there isn’t much here to make Jackie nervous, and as for the ghost of Bruce Lee, I seriously doubt if he even bothered to open an eye.

Afterwords

Very obliquely, District B-13, in near Hollywood fashion,2 is trying to “say something” about the real problem in France, the fact that close to 10 percent of French “citizens” are Moslem immigrants with a serious grudge against western civilization in general and Marianne in particular, who live in segregated communities unvisited by any decent Frenchman. But the “District B-13” we see in the film is inhabited entirely by Frenchmen, not immigrants. The racial/religious split, which is the reason why the “districts” exist, is ignored. Because, sadly, it will take more than kung-fu to make it go away.3

  1. Never trust a French bureaucrat, dude. []
  2. OK, not that gutless, but close. []
  3. On the upside, the film does have some bitchin’ French hip-hop (Quoi?) over the closing credits. []