(On Cable TV, March 2015) Action-hero actor Paul Walker didn’t get much respect while he was alive, but his untimely death in late 2013 did much to make critics re-evaluate his solid everyman persona and how he could almost singlehandedly raise the level of even the most hum-drum production. Brick Mansions is a good example of his skills: While the film itself isn’t much more than a routine americanized remake of French action thriller Banlieue 13, (starring parkour legend David Belle in the same role than in the original), it does seem a bit better than it is thanks to an earnest, core-persona performance by Walker. The parkour action seems dialed-down from the original (Bell is almost a decade older, and Walker is no specialist) but the film throws in a car chase and a few other action beats to keep things interesting. The plot, with its walled-off city and nuclear redevelopment plot, barely made sense in the French original and seems even more ludicrous on American soil, but that’s to be expected with Luc Besson writing the script. Still, a few interesting performances are worth mentioning: Aside from Walker and Belle’s turns as protagonists, RZA is fine as a crime lord and Montréal-born Ayisha Issa makes a striking impression as a capable henchwoman. Otherwise, much of the film blurs into an indistinct mass of running, gunplay, fights and chases. Walker may not have been a fine dramatic actor, but he was exceptional at playing a likable action hero, and it’s in mediocre movies like this one that this talent is best appreciated.
(On DVD, July 2010) As a follow-up to the first Banlieue 13, this sequel does the expected: Bring back the lead characters to do the same things again in a slightly bigger context, while avoiding messing too much with the formula. It works decently: David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli are just as great as the action heroes of the sequel, and while there’s a little less parkour this time around, the mix is still heavy in good action sequences. Between a martial arts demonstration in which a Van Gogh painting is used (Jackie Chan-style) as a weapon, a chase sequence in which a character makes his way down from a tall building complex, or a video-game-inspired fight featuring the captivating Elodie Yung, Banlieue 13: Ultimatum delivers as an action movie. Director Patrick Alessandrin keeps control of the mixture, and the budget of the piece only shows its limits in a regrettable decision not to show some of the ending explosions. While Luc Besson’s script is its usual mix of ham-fisted populism, sexy misogyny and thin rationales, there’s something intriguing in the way it sets up a multicultural union of interest against staid reactionary “Harriburton” capitalism. There may not be a whole lot of substance to this film, but it’s got its pulse on significant Parisian social issues. Anyone who liked the first film will feel just as satisfied with the sequel. The Region-1 DVD comes complete with a short but enlightening making-of documentary that highlights most of the film’s high action points, and appears to reflect the fun that everyone had in making the picture.