The update of Ben E. King’s classic “Stand By Me” by the DJ and electronic musician Ki:Theory that auto-plays on Brick Mansions‘ official website is a more variegated cover version than the film itself, which is an uglier English-language remake of the Paris-set dystopian action picture District B13 with the dubious addition of RZA as a drug lord whose subordinates might understand him better if he didn’t rely so heavily on metaphors related to his mother’s cooking. He’s the villain here, not the soundtrack composer he was for Jim Jarmusch’s great, weird, modern-day Bushido-code flick Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. But that’s typical: Almost no one in this film is allowed to play to their strengths.
No one, that is, except David Belle, the parkour pioneer who reprises his role from B13 as Lino, né Leïto, the Good Man Trying to Clean Up the Ghetto. He keeps pissing off his nemesis, Tremaine Alexander (RZA), by stealing his dope and destroying it. In the scant spare time this crusade allows him, he enjoys performing inverted sit-ups hanging from a pipe.
In the decade since the original picture (redundant though it is, how a remake took this long is anyone’s guess), Belle has turned 40, which means now he looks less like Shia Labeouf and actually wears a shirt for one or two scenes, but he still moves like a cat bitten by a radioactive spider. Watching him evade Alexander’s henchmen by swinging from conveniently exposed plumbing lines, cannonballing from window to window (open, closed, doesn’t matter), and clambering up fire escapes faster than most people can sprint over flat ground inspires awe at the ingenious machine that is the human body. And for viewers of a certain age, an overwhelming urge to play Donkey Kong.
A fake news-footage montage running less than a minute lets us know we’re in 2018 Detroit, its inner city now ringed by a razor-wire-topped wall and military checkpoints to keep the vermin in. As in the original RoboCop, the Motor City is a hellscape so far beyond saving that the powers that be just want to raze it and start over. Also as in RoboCop, the Motor City gets its name dragged through the mud without even being afforded the small dignity of playing itself. Brick Mansions — which exists only because American audiences will not turn out for any movie, even a kickass action thriller like B13, that talks French — was shot in Montreal, the world’s second-largest francophone city after Paris.
The story hasn’t changed much. Fearless undercover cop Damien Collier is dispatched into the walled city (now called”Brick Mansions”) to recruit Lino’s aid in locating and disarming a stolen WMD. “We prefer the term ‘device,’ one of Collier’s armchair-general bosses says between sips of cognac. “‘Bomb’ has such negative connotations.” Collier will have to fight that rapscallion Lino a few times before he figures out Lino’s more honorable and trustworthy than his superiors. The screenplay is credited to B13 co-writers Luc Besson and Bibi Naceri, which makes it difficult to know who we should thank for the English dialogue. Before Lino and Collier perform a synchronized back flip, Lino waxes philosophic: “Ready for a back flip?” Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid this is not.
Collier gets a new backstory about his killed-in-the-line-of-duty father, and Ayisha Issa plays a heavy with no precedent in the original, because someone decided it was necessary to threaten Lino’s just-here-to-be-a-hostage-girlfriend with girl-on-girl sexual assault. One wonders if RZA might’ve had script input, seeing how he gets to drop a Wu Tang Clan lyric at one point, and that his character gets a not-in-the-original whiff of third-act redemption that asks us to forget that we watched him coldly execute a pair of his own minions earlier in the picture.
Otherwise, this is an almost scene-for-scene remake — but not a shot-for-shot remake, which likely would have been more enjoyable. First-time director Camille Delamarre is an experienced editor of action pictures with numbers in them. He cut Taken 2 and Transporter 3; next, he’s directing Transporter 4 and after that, who knows? A Jackson Five biopic, maybe. Alas, he does the spry Belle no favors by so wantonly using jittery-lens and slow-motion effects. Brick Mansions runs about 10 minutes longer than its precursor and already looks more dated, in part because Delamarre has grossly overestimated the visual appeal of slo-mo replays of glass shattering and stacks of boxes falling down. The longer, smoother takes of B13, which let us see that Belle was performing his incredible stunts for real, at his own risk and on his own knees, were far more thrilling. Of course it’s a cliché to complain that today’s action movies look more like video games than actual motion pictures; those stutter-frame effects make this particular game look like it’s being played on a computer that needs a better graphics card.
With its talent-squandering choppy action, it recalls the Rush Hour franchise, wherein Brett Ratner took Jackie Chan — who was getting on in years by then, but still one of the most ingenious physical performers in the history of cinema — and shot his fights in short, confusing close-ups, as one would when trying to hide the physical limitations of an actor who can’t really do this stuff. Like, say, Rush Hour co-star Chris Tucker.
Or like Paul Walker, who’d completed his role as Collier in Brick Mansions prior to his death in a high-speed auto accident in November. Walker was best known for the The Fast and the Furious franchise; the producers of the upcoming seventh installment are using his two brothers and some digital sorcery to finish the picture and write Walker’s character out of the series. Brick Mansions includes two different scenes of Walker crashing a car at high speed. Should the producers have removed these? I don’t think so. The guy specialized in car-chase movies. Certainly they might have done a more tasteful job of the chintzy-looking onscreen dedication to Walker that pops up before the end credits.
Walker replaces B13‘s Cyril Raffaelli, who subsequently demonstrated his own parkour skills as a bad guy in Live Free or Die Hard (earning the epithet “damn hamster!” from that yippie-kai-yayin’ quip machine John McClane) but has mostly stayed out of American pictures. There’s no getting around the fact that Raffaelli was a more convincing physical match for Belle, because like Belle, he’s an athlete first — his credits on IMDB as a stunt coordinator far outnumber his credits as an actor.
Walker? He was an actor, one blessed with more affability than range. His line readings aren’t much more persuasive than Belle’s, who is working in his second language. Physically, Walker keeps up well enough, and the film gets a few laughs out of his disbelieving reaction shots whenever Belle performs some bravura gymnastic feat that Walker’s character is supposed to emulate. At least he isn’t playing second banana to Vin Diesel anymore, the poor guy.