Sadly, apart from "Unleashed," few of the pictures have been as compelling or original as the pictures that Besson once made his stock and trade -- gritty, stylish, uncommonly intelligent action-thrillers like "La Femme Nikita" and "Leon: The Professional." Among the handful of others that stand out, the modestly-budgeted "District B13," made in 2004 but only just getting its release in the U.S., is one of the strongest, a rip-roaring French-language thrill-ride that plays like a Parisian "Escape From New York" crossed with a Jackie Chan policier.
Undoubtedly, the film's release was helped by the outbreak of riots earlier this year in the same Parisian suburbs -- largely immigrant ghettos -- in which "District B13" takes place. The particular scenario detailed in the film, however, could apply to any crime-riddled urban area in Europe or the United States. The year is 2010 and the French government has finally thrown in the towel, sealing off the urban jungles and leaving them to govern themselves by whatever form of self-styled martial law emerges. The sadistic Taha (Besson's co-screenwriter Larbi Naceri) runs B13 largely off drugs, weapons and fear. And thanks to the doings of some crooked cops, his principle nemesis -- a conscientious and lethal young punk named Leito (David Belle) -- sits in prison while Leito's sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) sits chained at Taha's feet. It's not a situation the authorities have reason to care about until Taha comes into possession of a neutron bomb, which has been inadvertently armed for detonation in 24 hours. Hot-shot undercover cop Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) gets the call, but there's a hitch -- he needs a guide. And only Leito knows how to get to Taha.
As befits the formula, Leito and Damien get off to a rocky start and don't really get in synch until after each has nearly gotten the other killed. But once their trust is established, they're an unbeatable duo, dropping bad guys like flies and effortlessly executing the kinds of bone-crushing stunts that don't even show up in Hong Kong movies anymore.
First-time director Pierre Morel -- previously cinematographer on "The Transporter" and "Unleashed" -- moves things at a breakneck pace, bringing the film in at a wall-to-wall, action-packed 85 minutes that rarely lets up, thanks to flawlessly choreographed and meticulously-edited action scenes that thankfully follow the Hong Kong model more than the slapdash American variety. None of this would be possible, of course, without the dual-threat of Raffaelli and Belle and their dual-threat talents as martial artists and actors. Though not yet household names outside of France, it seems only a matter of time before justice insures them a higher level of international stardom suitable to their exceptional skills.
As for Besson, the film happily confirms that success hasn't completely spoiled France's one-time golden boy -- even if one has to look deep into his prodigious output as a mogul to find the occasional gem. Starring Cyril Raffaelli, David Belle, Tony D'Amario, Larbi Naceri and Dany Verissimo. Directed by Pierre Morel. Written by Larbi Naceri and Luc Besson. Produced by Luc Besson. A Magnolia release. Action. French-language; subtitled. Rated R for strong violence, some drug content and language. Running time: 85 min