by Kathie Smith
Those excited for Brick Mansions on the merits of pedigree alone (and by that I mean Luc Besson and David Belle, not Paul Walker and RZA) would be best to crank up Netflix Instant Streaming and catch the far more efficient and entertaining District 13, with pedigree intact. Brick Mansions is a direct rehash of District 13, migrating the setting from 2010 Paris to 2018 Detroit and retaining the talents of Belle, one of the founders of Parkour. So far, so good, but that’s where the sound decisions end. Belle’s physical prowess and lightning-fast footwork are not only underappreciated in Brick Mansions but also mishandled by choreographers and editors who fail to find any fluidity in the action. But the most unfortunate differentiation will be found in swapping Belle’s co-star Cyril Raffaelli, an accomplished stuntman and martial artist, with a much less charismatic and athletic Paul Walker on what would be his last full film. Walker, who died late last year, was not the most multidimensional actor in the world, but he deserves a better commemoration than this subpar remake.
Director: Camille Delamarre
Producers: Luc Besson, Charles Léger, Jonathan Vanger
Writers: Luc Besson, Bibi Naceri
Cinematographer: Christophe Collette
Music: Marc Bell, Trevor Morris
Editors: Carlos Rizzo, Arthur Tarnowski
Cast: Paul Walker, David Belle, RZA, Gouchy Boy, Catalina Denis, Ayisha Issa, Carlos Rota, Andreas Apergis, Richard Zeman, Robert Maillet, Bruce Ramsay, Frank Fontaine
US Theatrical Release: April 24, 2014
Distributor: Relativity Media
In the very near future, the city of Detroit (or at least the powers that be) turns its back on the low-income neighborhoods, pulling out all infrastructures and throwing up an impenetrable wall that would impress the Israelis. The result is an isolated ghetto which goes by the ironic moniker of Brick Mansions, decorated street to sky with graffiti and festering with the anarchy of drug lords and vigilantes. One such drug lord is Tremaine (RZA) who runs a ruthless business and is backed by an army of ruffians; one such vigilante is Lino (Belle) who fights the good fight in order to keep his building drug free. As the movie opens, Lino has just nicked a briefcase of cocaine from one of Tremaine’s men and is madly rushing to wash the entire batch down the drain of his bathtub. Lino’s impudent behavior causes a cataclysmic feud with Tremaine that leads to Lino’s ex-girlfriend being held hostage by Tremaine and Lino in jail for killing a corrupt cop.
This is merely the setup (and a satisfying shot of adrenaline) for introducing Damien (Walker), an undercover detective determined to bring down the city’s drug ring both inside and outside the walls of Brick Mansions, including Tremaine. But when he gets an urgent assignment from the Detroit mayor and a steely-faced army general to go into the confines of Brick Mansions to defuse a bomb that Tremaine’s men has stolen, he balks: there’s not enough time to plan and he doesn’t know the terrain in this area where cops are killed for sport. And this is where Lino comes in—a guy with a huge grudge against Tremaine, who still holds Lino’s ex captive, and knowledge of every alley and rooftop in Brick Mansions.
Saving Brick Mansions from a ticking bomb is, of course, a dubious mission, as indicated in an earlier scene where the mayor unveils his plans for a luxury high-rise community, also called Brick Mansions, on the same plot of land. There is some flawed marketing in this plan, but only because Brick Mansions asks you to consider the story and the characters as plausible (a mistake that many action films make—good action will override a deficient narrative any day of the week). Nonetheless, Brick Mansions takes the time to dish up Damien’s relationship with his grandfather, build Tremaine into a gangster with a heart of gold, and deliver a sort of happily-ever-after that is not only unnecessary but risible. Needless to say, none of this padding works and eventually takes away from the foot and car chases and the fights that anchor the film.
Walker’s character makes for a good tough-as-nails fish out of water, despite paling in comparison to Raffaelli in District 13. The production seems well aware that Walker might not be on the same acrobatic level as Raffaelli or Belle and is fortunately willing to poke a little fun; during a chase, Lino effortlessly jumps up and grabs a pipe and swings through a hole above a wall feet first, leaving Damien, who is expected to follow, incredulously looking at the hole, then looking back at his pursuers, and looking back at the hole. He improvises his escape, leading to the punch line, “Same results, different method.” Walker also gets some time behind the wheel—perhaps one of the reasons he got the role for the movie—and even shares a tongue-in-cheek joke about his skills as a driver compared with Lino. But overall, the action sequences are unsuccessful in finding a natural flow (especially if you compare the first 15 minutes of Brick Mansions to District 13).
If substandard editing is one of Brick Mansions shortcomings, it’s ironic that first time feature director Camille Delamarre is an editor by trade, working on a number of action films, including others penned by Besson (Transporter 3, Colombiana, Taken 2), but nothing that excels beyond workman-like aesthetics. Brick Mansions confirms Delamarre as a by-the-numbers craftsman whose more creative side is, we can only hope, somewhat dormant. Brick Mansions will satiate US audiences by moving at an engaging clip and providing fans of RZA and Walker with solid performances. But for those who don’t mind some subtitles with their guilty pleasures, this has all been done before.