In the first ten minutes of "Brick Mansions", French actor David Belle is chased by drug dealers through a rundown Detroit block with the finesse and easy physicality of Gene Kelly in his prime. He runs like a sprinter to avoid an army of gun-toting thugs, then jumps across buildings only to slide to a stop on a gravel roof without a scratch. Throughout the sequence he all but defies gravity with the thrilling confidence of Spiderman, but instead of a latex suit, he sports numerous tattoos on his tight torso. And his choreographed set pieces get this quick-moving B-movie off at warp speed.
In this sequence Belle utilizes Parkour, a movement discipline he developed in the 1990s that he helped popularize in videos and, more recently, a pair of movies - District B13 and District B13: Ultimatum, (both written by French auteur Luc Besson); and it gives this by-the-numbers urban action drama a fresh vitality. It also leaves you wondering why Belle isn’t a bigger action star.
Perhaps "Brick Mansions" will make him one. As it stands it will likely be known as the final completed film to star the late Paul Walker, the sexy, laconic actor who died last fall in a car crash that immediately brought to mind his best-known role, as Brian O’Conner in the hugely successful "Fast and Furious" franchise. There is a sense of unease watching him in this film as he hijacks speeding vehicles, avoids head-on crashes with fire trucks and totals Mustangs with little impunity; but such is the way of this slick, cartoonish genre picture. What’s most regrettable is that he can’t team with Belle in another film -- they play well off each other, be it in their deadpan delivery of the dialogue or the way they somersault in the air in perfect tandem.
Belle’s assured performance can be attributed to him having played the role of Lino, the dexterous, tattooed convict with altruistic aims, in Besson’s aforementioned films. In fact, "Brick Mansions" is an American remake of "District B13," a big hit in France in 2004. Here Besson (who again writes the screenplay) resets the action to Detroit in the near future where the city father’s come up with a cynical city planning concept: wall a section of the inner-city (named Brick Mansions) and keep its inhabitants captive with no civic order. In this lawless, broken-down urban zone, drugs, crime and hopelessness are the rule; while the rest of the city becomes prosperous.
Lino is a renegade do-gooder out to rid Brick Mansions of drugs by going up against Tremaine, a smoothly sophisticated crime boss (played with droll charisma by RZA). When Lino escapes Tremaine’s grasps, he kidnaps Lola (Catalina Denis), Lino’s ex-; which sets up one of the film’s numerous action sequences. It doesn’t end well for Lino, who ends up in prison while Lola is kept by Tremaine; but when Tremaine (who also moonlights as an arms dealer) hijacks a neutron bomb, city leaders pair Lino with undercover cop Damien Collier (Walker) to enter the dangerous zone and defuse the deadly device.
For most of the time Lino and Damien either fight with each other or Tremaine’s gang as they race through Brick Mansions, which looks like a war zone. These sequences are thrillingly staged with the violence played at a comic book level. Director Camille Delamarre. proves to be able disciple of Besson (best-known for "The Fifth Element" and "Taken") in his breathless, often inventive staging of the action sequences. Delamarre, a film editor for such action movies as "Taken 2" and "Colombiana," has a slick, light touch that, like Belle, never seems to touch ground.
The cartoonish tone extends to the film’s populist message, which pits the downtrodden inhabitants of Brick Mansion against the corrupt politicians that run Detroit. Walker’s character, a cop out to revenge the death of his father at the hands of Tremaine’s henchman, acts as link between the two.
That the film ends with an almost ludicrous change-in-tone only adds to its appeal as an urban fable. You can’t help but fall for the extraordinarily nubile Belle and regret that Walker will no longer be bringing his Steve McQueen-like appeal to movies. With a bit of regret, "Brick Mansions" makes for a pure B-movie good time.