I recently returned home for R&R and have been revelling in some well deserved movie goin'. After the slobberknocker that was the Cap 2/Raid 2 double feature, I was still in the mood for some fisticuffs, so I decided to check out the English language remake of Bainlieue 13/District 13. More than that, I decided to make a special day out of it by meeting up with longtime Badass Digest member SmithDoc at one of New York's most famous drinking establishments. All in all...well, let's just say it was a good idea to get sloshed before subjecting ourselves to that particular cinema-going experience.
It so happened that my return home coincided with Queens Beer Week, a consortium of breweries, bars and pubs celebrating tasty brews made in my hometown. I learned of it a few days earlier while visiting The Alewife, an equal parts swanky and laidback craft beer joint. That same day, I made my way down to John Brown Smokehouse which also had some great stuff on tap. I did find it weird that there was a barbecue joint named after a hardcore abolitionist at the heart of a gentrification mecca, and oddly enough this theme would revisit me at the theater. Anyway, I met up with SmithDoc during the final day of the Beer Week festivities at the famed Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden, a real deal European-style beer garden established by Czech and Slovak immigrants over a century ago.
SmithDoc and I got acquainted, although I did essentially Google my man-date beforehand by checking out some of his work on his Vimeo page. The man does some incredible cinematography, and I'd encourage all BAD faithfuls to take a look/share links/send nudes. After a few drinks, we were on our way to the theater.
The original District 13 involves a super cop infiltrating a fictional future dystopian ghetto walled off from the rest of society and teaming up with a local hood hero in order to stop a stolen WMD from being used by a nefarious drug lord. Brick Mansions is essentially unchanged and follows most of the original nearly scene for scene. This time though, the movie serves as an action vehicle for the late Paul Walker of Fast & Furious fame. Whereas both heroes were dynamic martial artists/athletes in the original, Walker's Damien Collier character is more a meat and potatoes fist fighter with wheelman and gunslinging skills to round it out. David Belle reprises his role as Lito (modified to Lino) from the original and provides the primary spectacle of physical feats.
I was curious to see how the film would address the obvious gap in their physical abilities (there is one scene like in Shanghai Knights where Belle performs some Parkour wall-scaling escape magic and Collier laments how he totally is incapable of such wizardry), and it seems their answer was to mash together Walker's Fast and Furious driving iconography with heavily edited fighting and shootouts straight out of an early '90s cable action movie (I don't think it's a coincidence that there is a character named Tom Berenger) in an attempt to pass him off as a sort of Jason Statham-Lite. The entire movie is inherently absurd, so this is the least of the fantasies you are asked to buy into. I remain unconvinced of his bad-ass stature, but I went along with it anyway because, honestly, it's hard to actively dislike the guy, and I think this is what the producers were banking on. It occurred to me that despite his clean-cut white boy surfer image, somehow black people/minorities love Paul Walker. Despite being the blandest parts of his movies, people seem to inherently want to root for him. SmithDoc astutely observed that his overwhelming inoffensiveness is part of his unique appeal. His vanilla flavor allows people to easily project themselves onto his characters. But more than that, I think he provides the epitome of an ideal cross cultural token friend/wingman. Whether dealing with Vin Diesel's oddity or Tyrese's boisterousness, you can count on Paul Walker to stick by your side 100 percent. He's that one trusty white friend that we can all have. And it was even further evident at the end credits, as a photo memorial of Paul Walker was shown with the uplifting Aloe Blacc song "The Man" playing over it; small claps and "Awwws" were heard throughout the theater.
Speaking of black people, the other big draw in the casting for this film is Hip-Hop artist RZA, who has been involved in numerous attempts at bringing contemporary international martial arts cinema to The Hood throughout the years. His efforts have largely been pretty lousy, however, and unfortunately that losing streak persists with his work in Brick Mansions. But goddamned if he ain't tryin, as he puts his all into the role of the drug lord Tremaine Alexander. Like the ill-fated Man With The Iron Fists, you can tell that there is passion in what he's trying to do, but passion alone cant make up for lack of technical ability. He drifts in and out of a terrible accent and doesn't quite pull off the menacing villain role, partially because the film wants him to also be a sympathetic character. Nuance like that doesn't really work for a broad insane movie like this... or at least, it can't without an actor of suitable caliber to pull it off. Still, he gets off some noteworthy one-liners, to include quoting his own song "C.R.E.A.M." made with the legendary Wu Tang Clan, so there's still something to offer in that regard.
Even in all its craziness, there was an element of commentary on class/racial divides in District 13, and Brick Mansions tries to go for the same thing. There are some minor changes in how the final act plays out, but for the most part the "Rich people don't give a shit about poor people" theme remains the same, although there was also a bit of 99% vs. 1% uprising stuff going on that feels three years too late. In fact, the Paris setting in the original is now changed to none other than good old Detroit. Insert snarky comment here about this being the second worst remake set in Detroit this year. On the one hand it makes sense to set the story here, but as SmithDoc quickly noted, "They don't have the budget to build those giant walls." Can't really argue with that logic. SLIGHT SPOILER: I did think it was weird that, for the most part, the walled city is full of scary black people, but when things get resolved at the end all of a sudden white people start showing up with shiny school buses and nice cars. Another review online indicated how strange this reflection of gentrification seemed. I didn't quite reach that conclusion myself, but then again I wouldn't be mad if Paul Walker wanted to be my next door neighbor; he seems like a nice white guy.
I maintain my stance as a proponent of giving remakes their fair shake. Unfortunately, if you have already seen District 13, i cannot really recommend Brick Mansions. There is certainly a sense of fun and sincerity exuded by everyone in it, but the problem here is that everything that made the original good - the violence, sexuality, set pieces, insanity and most of all the Parkour - is all toned way down, seemingly falling victim to the dreaded PG-13 rating scheme. It's not a soulless remake, but it's definitely a watered down one. If nothing else, it warranted the pre-gaming of heavy pilsners with a good friend beforehand, so if you are still inclined to give the movie a chance I suggest you do the same. If you're ever in town when I am, maybe we can do so together. At the aforementioned Alewife, there's always at least 20 different drafts on tap along with a large selection of bottles and wines. I'm partial to the Brewfist Spaceman IPA. At John Brown's, you cant go wrong with the tasty Victory Prima Pils. If you know of other fine drinking establishments in the greater metropolitan area, let us know in the comments. And if you would like to dissect the finer points and subtleties of RZA's illustrious acting career, I'm all ears. He was aight in Ghost Dog! Peace.