Luc Besson’s glorified hobby room, EuropaCorp, specializes in top-notch adrenaline junk, produced in English with French crews. Its best movies—like Taken, The Transporter, and Lockout—manage to combine American snarl with Cantonese-flavored style. They are blatantly derivative: Taken is Death Wish given pummeling momentum, The Family dresses the Addams Family in mob-movie drag, and Lockout—a flop which has developed a cult following on account of actually being pretty good—asks what would happen if Guy Pearce played Bruce Willis playing Snake Plissken in a French comic book.
Besson, who writes or co-writes a large chunk of EuropaCorp’s output, is a serial copycat. Often, he takes to plundering his own work. (Hey, a man can only have so many unoriginal ideas before he starts repeating himself.) His weakest productions are attempts at repackaging past hits, motivated by formula instead of fandom. His scale of quality doesn’t run from least derivative to most, but from lavish to slavish.
On that scale, Brick Mansions, a remake of EuropaCorp’s French-language District B13 from 2004, falls somewhere in the middle. Ludicrous even by the studio’s standards, the movie attempts to transplant the premise—a sort of reverse Assault On Precinct 13, but with a nuclear bomb and more parkour—and one of the stars of the original to the United States. It’s a beat-for-beat remake of a movie whose plot was never meant to do anything except get characters to jump from rooftops, made by a less confident director (Camille Delamarre, one of the studio’s go-to editors) and set in a culture Besson has never been able to grasp.
It’s also a silly pile-up of exaggerated action clichés—and much of the time, it’s pretty fun. Part of District B13’s appeal lay in the fact that both of its lead roles were played by stuntmen who didn’t look like action stars, but could do what action stars couldn’t on camera. Unable to compete with the original in terms of stuntwork, Brick Mansions instead plays up the cartoony illogic. It’s a movie where car chases end with bad guys crashing into a police station, where crooks drive pick-ups with mounted machine guns in full view of the cops, where a murderous drug lord can run for mayor as a reform candidate, and where the climax consists of the heroes rescuing a damsel who is chained to a rocket, Perils Of Pauline-style.
Brick Mansions is set in the near future in a dystopian Detroit (in the movies, is there any other kind?), where heroes Damien (the late Paul Walker) and Lino (Dustin Hoffman look-alike David Belle, more or less reprising his role from the original) must race against the clock to disarm a nuclear bomb that’s fallen into the hands of dapper, cooking-obsessed kingpin Tremaine (RZA). It’s a classic mismatched buddy set-up: One’s an undercover cop, the other’s a Frenchman who inexplicably lives in a Detroit housing project and whose voice has very clearly been re-dubbed. To get the bomb from Tremaine, Damien and Lino must leap through windows in slow-motion, escape the camera’s stuttery shutter angle, and defeat three mini-boss-like henchmen, who are named K2, Rayzah (who carries a razor), and Thyroid Gland.
That’s the movie in a nutshell, and anyone whose lizard brain doesn’t light up at the prospect of seeing one of Wu-Tang’s own ham it up in a game of live-action Donkey Kong should probably sit this one out. As with many of Besson’s scripts, there’s an awful lot of race-baiting going on (it’s a movie about two white guys saving the ghetto by beating up lots and lots of black people), which the movie completely subverts in its closing stretch. The broad populism of Brick Mansions’ finale is unlikely to get anyone to think hard about what could be done to improve life in America’s blighted inner-city neighborhoods; instead, it comes across as just another outsize cartoon cliché.