When Pauline Kael proclaimed Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita "the death of French cinema," not even she could have guessed how much the Eurotrash auteur's realm would expand in the 15 years since. Aside from his own directorial efforts, Besson has become France's answer to Jerry Bruckheimer, a producer of slick, commercial action movies farmed off to a growing army of protégés. Besson writes many of the scripts, but the elements are so interchangeable—drugs, sleaze, chuckling supervillainy, and Hong Kong-style effects—that each new project probably starts with white-out on the title page. The best Besson films tend to be the most extravagantly stupid, such as last year's Transporter 2, and under that thin criteria, the new District B13 counts as a tasty morsel of cinematic junk food, at least for those who don't mind a little acid reflux.
With the vaguest of allusions to the recent immigrant riots, the film opens in 2010 Paris, where government leaders have decided to seal the city's crime-ridden housing districts behind a security wall. Needless to say, the isolated projects are a grimy haven for crime lords like Larbi Naceri, a thug who casually guns down his own henchmen at any hint of bad news, and presides over a mountain of cocaine to rival Al Pacino's in Scarface. As the proprietor of the only "clean" building in the neighborhood, David Belle is a persistent thorn in Naceri's side, as he does everything in his Jackie Chan-like power to upend the drug trade. After a series of events land Belle in jail while Naceri keeps his sister (Dany Verissimo) on a leash, an equally dexterous cop (Cyril Raffaelli) recruits Belle to stop Naceri from launching a nuclear rocket into the city.
Beginning with a whoosh of cameras zipping nimbly around the projects, District B13 gets off to an exhilarating start, capped by a long sequence of Belle fleeing his attackers; it recalls the alleyway chase in Ong-Bak, which Besson, perhaps not coincidentally, executive-produced. Director Pierre Morel tries to keep the energy up for 85 minutes straight, but the film never manages to top itself, and in spite of the political overtones, it doesn't provide much thematic sustenance. Once Belle and Raffaelli team up, District B13 settles into a passable mismatched-buddy movie, goosed up by hard-hitting martial arts and flashy camera acrobatics. As Besson knows by now, that's just enough to sustain his house of cards, and he gets out before they come tumbling down.