Silver Screen: Brick Mansions **
You don’t necessarily have to get bitten by a radioactive spider to scale walls, leap across rooftops, and perform acts of derring-do— although it might help with both your foreign and domestic box-office returns. The other option is becoming a master of parkour, which is not in fact Spider-Man’s last name, but the urban acrobatic sport of using gymnastics, momentum, and moxie to turn a streepscape into an obstacle course.
Parkour master David Belle puts on a dazzling exhibition during the opening sequence of Brick Mansions. Belle plays Leno, a community-minded vigilante living in dystopian Detroit circa 2020, which is not all that different from regular old Detroit, except that the city’s politicians have erected a wall between the thriving downtown area and the slums known as Brick Mansions. In that forsaken zone, anything goes. Lino is attempting to do his part by interrupting the supply of drugs controlled by gang leader Tremaine Alexander (RZA).
When first we meet Lino, he’s hurrying to wash several kilos of narcotics down a bathtub drain before Alexander’s thugs can get to him. When they do arrive, Lino flees— not down the hall and through the door, but over the top of gun-toting killers, in and out of windows, across roofs, and down fire escapes. He seems to have mastered balance and inertia. His muscled body can be manipulated to become the form of a bruising boxer, a lithe tightrope walker, or a cannonball. It’s a dizzying, fantastic scene that makes you suspect Brick Mansions might be a hidden gem of an action movie.
Alas, whenever Belle is offscreen— which is far too often— Brick Mansions settles into being exactly the generic, second-tier shoot-’em-up its low profile and cut-rate cast would suggest. While Belle is the movie’s ace in the hole, the late Paul Walker dominates Brick Mansions’ screentime, and he does it playing a vague riff on the same character he made unmemorable in the Fast and the Furious series.
Walker’s Damien Collier is an ambitious undercover cop eager to go inside Brick Mansions to deal with the rampant crime. He gets his chance when the blatantly villainous mayor sends him behind the wall to retrieve a stolen neutron bomb that’s fallen into Alexander’s hands. Meanwhile, Alexander has kidnapped Lino’s girlfriend Lola (Catalina Denis) in an effort to draw him out of hiding, which gives the not-really-all-that-mismatched mismatched duo a reason to team up and bring down the crime boss.
What ensues is a passably entertaining but totally forgettable series of action-movie clichés and competent but rote chase sequences that occasionally stand out whenever Belle has a chance to put his skills to use. Director Camille Delamarre captures enough of the kineticism to milk a little adrenaline from our glands, but choppy editing obscures the majesty and grace of the parkour, unlike the longer, unbroken shots in the opening of Casino Royale that let the fantastic stuntwork speak for itself.
Belle might not be a classically trained thespian, but as an action actor he’s got the goods. The same can’t be said of his costars, especially RZA, who’s inert and charisma-free.
Of course, most problematic is the presence of Walker, whose death in 2013 can’t help but shape perceptions of the movie. A tragic accident has recast him as a beloved performer taken too soon, when the reality is that he was a perfectly acceptable, beliked performer whose career was defined by a movie series where the real stars are tricked-out cars and over-the-top action setpieces. The dark irony of his death undercuts the glib escapism of exactly the kind of movies for which he was famous. Delamarre and producer/cowriter Luc Besson make no move to put any distance between grim fact and flimsy fiction: During the course of Brick Mansions, Walker is involved in not one but two massive car crashes, one of which flings the near-lifeless body of his passenger through the windshield. It’s a little too unsettling to justify in this unnecessary remake of a ten-year-old French action movie (originally titled District B13).
Brick Mansions doesn’t even get the morose distinction of being Walker’s final film. That sad honor goes to the forthcoming Fast and Furious VII, which will no doubt feature some more cringe-inducing scenes of Walker narrowly escaping death on four wheels. Hopefully that movie is a little more tactful, a lot more exciting, and a superior sendoff.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.