I saw District 13, the French action film from which the new Brick Mansions was derived, back in college. The former certainly had its absurdist moments — I’m pretty sure the wanton and frivolous violence was at a similar level, and a key conspiratorial plot point in both is revealed by the dumbest and most nonsensical of coincidences. But I swear I remember District 13 being, on the whole, an engaging, well-shot, and entertaining flick.
Brick Mansions, by contrast, is a godawful disaster.
The film opens in Detroit, circa 2018. Crime and poverty have become so bad in the public housing project of Brick Mansions that the government has simply built a wall around it, cordoning the community off from the rest of the city. The interior is ruled by gangs overseen by the crime lord Tremaine (RZA), while one of the few (comparatively) good men in Brick Mansions is Lino (David Belle). An angry misfit, Lino spends his days stealing drugs from Tremaine’s goons and flushing them in an attempt to cut down at least a little on the community’s dysfunction.
This obviously does not sit well with Tremaine, who uses his connections with the police who patrol Brick Mansions’ border to kidnap Lola (Catelina Denis), Lino’s girlfriend. In a fit of range, Lino kills the cop responsible, which lands him in prison.
Sometime later, Tremaine’s men steal a neutron bomb (no, really) and bring it inside the projects. The heist puts the bomb on a countdown to detonation, so the mayor (Bruce Ramsay) and his men send in undercover police officer Damien (Paul Walker) to disarm it. Since, Lino knows the projects, they conspire to get him and Damien into the same patrol car, with Damien posing as a fellow criminal. They then escape, and the rest of Brick Mansions concerned their efforts to get to the bomb — and their discovery, along the way, that all is of course not what it seems.
Belle is an expert in parkour, the arresting form of urban running that originated in France in the last few decades, and also knows his martial arts. He plays the same character in the French and the American versions, and both films are built around showing off his skills. Unfortunately, only the French film did a decent job of it.
Aside from the opening chase, which ends in gloriously ridiculous fashion (Why on earth does a gang member have a grenade just sitting in his pocket?) Brick Mansions is poorly handled by director Camille Delamarre. The shots do not last long enough to really build any physical intensity or awe out of Belle’s antics, and the film annoyingly relies on frequent cuts rather than placement and choreography to create tension. Pierre Morel, who helmed the original District 13, off a script by Luc Besson, did far better.
Paul Walker’s Damien is a street brawler, not an elegant fighter, and the contrast holds at least the promise of interest. But he and Belle have zero chemistry, a problem that was not shared by Belle and the other actor in the original, despite far more similar fighting styles. The fact that Belle was apparently heavily and poorly dubbed to lessen his accent doesn’t help either.
RZA is certainly game for playing a villain. But honestly, his enunciation is terrible and he weirdly slips into a Jamaican accent every so often. There’s also a so-openly-vulgar-you-can’t-get-mad-at-it cat fight between Denis and Ayisha Issa as Tremaine’s chief enforcer.
A deeper problem for the film is its premise doesn’t really work when shorn of its French context. The rise of immigrant ghettos and extreme inequality in Paris doesn’t make the government’s dystopian and quasi-fascist response plausible, per se. But the idea emerges a bit more naturally from the French situation, and makes a bit more sense as political satire. Detroit was too universally leveled by the 2008 collapse for the premise to map on very well.
Finally, Paris being the French capital, you could see why the ultimate head of the country’s military would get involved. How a mayor could get authority over the movements of a neutron bomb or the feeds of military satellites is beyond my ability to comprehend. Delamarre and his writers rather overestimate the clout of America’s city officials. In sum, Brick Mansions is flat, uninteresting, it’s absurd in exactly all the ways you don’t want to be absurd, and the ending is so conceptually and morally incoherent you just want to run from it with all the parkour-esque agility you can muster.