Heavy artillery, sheer physical dexterity and down-to-the-wire suspense mix well in “Banlieue 13,” a message-based actioner that’s fast, dumb fun. Although some local crix have dismissed pic as a poor copy of John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York,” word-of-mouth should point to decent biz for Luc Besson-spawned venture in which a principled guy from the projects and a principled undercover cop unite to disarm a purloined neutron bomb before it obliterates 2 million people.
Basic premise has a painless subtext that should resonate without roiling the target aud: The rule of law is way cooler than the way of the gun. And — oh, yeah — if you’re a member of a disenfranchised underclass, try not to let the authorities build a wall around your neighborhood.
It’s 2010 and the government has erected concrete barriers around the hard-to-handle suburbs near Paris (“banlieue” is the French word for ‘burb). As a public service, spunky local lad Leito is busy destroying 20 kilos of heroin in the bathtub of his tower-block apartment when very armed, very menacing reps of local Scarface-like kingpin Taha (Larbi Naceri, who also co-scripted under the moniker Bibi Naceri) come looking for him. Leito — played by the more-Spiderman-than-thou David Belle of “Yamakasi” fame — escapes in a thrilling series of muscular stunts that call for him and his shock-absorbing knees to treat high-rise concrete structures and rooftops like well-placed trampolines.
In retaliation, Taha sends his baddies to kidnap Leito’s feisty sister, Lola (Dany Verissimo). Taha is not a nice man: Lola is soon strung out on heroin and kept on a dog leash at his feet while Leito does form-preserving sit-ups in prison.
Meanwhile, in a terrific prolonged set piece, undercover cop Damien (martial arts ace Cyril Raffaelli) captures a sleazy Latino crime boss and shuts down his illicit casino, against very stacked odds. Damien’s reward is an assignment that’s as delicate as it is seemingly impossible: Penetrate notorious Suburb 13 and stop the accidentally triggered countdown on a deadly bomb that was hijacked by Taha.
Narrative skeleton is derivative and formulaic but rarely feels that way thanks to bullet pacing, nifty choreography and a few well-placed rejoinders. Much of pic was lensed in Romania where the menacing bad guys must have come from Ugly Suckers R Us. For once, the vidgame-cum-comic book atmosphere is just plausible enough to make suspension of disbelief a pleasure instead of an intelligence-insulting chore.
Belle and Raffaelli were born to get out of filmic tight spots on short notice together — their sinewy moves and martial arts maneuvers are consistently fun to watch and there’s next to no expository dead air between action sequences.
Pic contains nothing groundbreaking or eternal but viewers should leave entertained instead of worn out.