Given that it not only covers the same narrative ground as the hyperkinetic 2004 French actioner “District B13,” but even borrows one of that film’s stars — the amazingly nimble, frequently shirtless parkour artist David Belle — there’s no denying that “Brick Mansions” qualifies as one of the more redundant English-language remakes on record. Which in no way makes it an unnecessary or unenjoyable one: Ten years on, this second stab at the same material from Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp generates nearly as much propulsive excitement as its predecessor, and considering how few saw “District B13” Stateside (where it grossed only $1.2 million theatrically), there’s clearly a sizable American audience ready to thrill to all those glass-smashing, stairwell-hopping stunts.
Still, the chief draw and talking point for this quick-and-dirty Relativity release will surely be Paul Walker, seen here in the last role he completed filming before his death in November. It’s impossible not to watch “Brick Mansions” through the prism of that untimely event, and if there’s any novelty to be found in Besson’s rehashed tale of slimy politicos and disenfranchised thugs working out their issues on an urban-ghetto obstacle course, it’s in the thrilling, haunting sight of Walker temporarily restored to his action-star prime. Whether he’s clinging to the back of a speeding vehicle (an image that induces a chill), executing a perfectly timed backflip, or fending off a bunch of uglies with his wrist cuffed to a steering wheel, the actor appears to have sunk his teeth into a role whose extreme physical demands required him to up his game, even beyond the already daunting standards of the “Fast and Furious” franchise.
We are no longer in a dystopian Paris, but rather a grimly futuristic vision of Detroit — clearly the go-to urban wasteland of the moment (if movies as different as “RoboCop” and “Only Lovers Left Alive” are any indication), even though this particular version of the Motor City was filmed in Canada. Walker plays Damien Collier, an undercover narcotics cop trying to avenge his father’s death at the hands of Tremaine (RZA), the imposing crime lord who rules over the run-down, government-condemned public-housing projects known as Brick Mansions. But to reach his target, Damien will have to join forces with Lino (Belle), an ultra-skilled, highly principled fighter who grew up in Brick Mansions, knows the whole squalid labyrinth by heart, and has his own personal score to settle with Tremaine: The drug lord has kidnapped Lino’s ex-girlfriend, Lola (Catalina Denis), and made her the personal plaything of his majorly depraved, blade-wielding henchwoman, Rayzah (a seriously scary Ayisha Issa).
The location and some of the characters may be new, but the narrative template here is almost identical to the one in “District B13” — starting with an opening chase sequence that culminates in a giddily pleasurable display of Lino’s parkour prowess (Belle is one of the co-founders of that urban movement), as he leaps from open windows, clambers up and down fire escapes, and sails blithely over the heads of his armed-and-dangerous pursuers, always landing on his feet. Once again Belle’s character will find himself locked up by a corrupt cop (who doesn’t live long enough to regret the decision), only to get busted out of jail by Damien, with whom he develops a wary rapport. And once again the two men must outwit their shared nemesis and disable a neutron bomb that, if detonated, could wipe out millions of civilians.
Insofar as the plot is little more than a thin but reasonably sturdy pretext for one slammin’ setpiece after another, all this wholesale recycling scarcely matters. What counts here is not the originality of the storytelling, but rather the beauty of the human body in motion, and the interplay between a clever, resourceful fighter and his or her physical environment — which is to say, the skill and ingenuity of the director. Whereas “District B13” marked the helming debut of Pierre Morel, who went on to direct 2008’s Liam Neeson-starring smash “Taken,” “Brick Mansions” launches the feature-filmmaking career of editor Camille Delamarre, another Gallic talent from inside the EuropaCorp fold (his editing credits include “Taken 2” and “Transporter 3,” and he’s already slated to direct “Transporter 4”).
Delamarre knows his way around an action scene and keeps the proceedings moving briskly enough, even if the picture clocks in at about 10 minutes longer than its taut, 81-minute predecessor. Still, it’s hard not to wish that editors Carlo Rizzo and Arthur Tarnowski hadn’t deployed such an aggressive cutting technique (especially in the parkour sequences), or that the film had played less frenetically with speed and slow motion, the better for us to appreciate the real-time agility of the stuntwork (coordinated by Alexandre Cadieux) and the swift, balletic movements of the actors.
What’s onscreen is still plenty arresting, sometimes electrifying. It’s enriched, too, by the slow-building rapport between Walker’s Damien and Belle’s Lino, as they gradually get past their mutual distrust, adjust to each other’s unique fighting methods, and eventually learn to work in fiercely effective tandem. (One highlight, involving two colliding vehicles and some carefully synchronized acrobatics, is at once ludicrous and perfect.) They make a fine duo, and while Belle’s performance is marred somewhat by his difficulty with English, Walker seems fully in his element — exuding his usual brash confidence, to be sure, but also allowing a gentle, unforced humanity and self-deprecating humor to peek through at key moments.
RZA offers solid backup in a role that becomes markedly less coherent over time, suddenly morphing from ruthless kingpin to underclass hero as the film becomes an ill-advised tract on the dangers of walling off the haves from the have-nots; these sociopolitical points, like the tragic backstory Damien is saddled with, are pushed a bit too hard to convince. Trevor Morris’ score sets a furious beat for the action, always unfolding in fittingly dreary urban environs expertly crafted by production designer Jean A. Carriere.