If we’ve learned anything from recent action films like The Raid and Dredd, it’s that massive apartment buildings filled with criminals and drugs (and oops, regular people, too!) are something to be feared, boxed up, and forgotten. Until, of course, it’s time to find a cool new place to stage an action-heavy shoot-em-up that requires an inventive setting to fill in any massive gaps of logic and plot. Whereas both The Raid and Dredd use their settings in relatively satisfying ways, with attention paid to stuff like geography and population, Camille Delamarre’s Brick Mansions uses its cool and compelling setting so infrequently that it’s easy to forget about. That’s a shame, because Delamarre’s film – scripted by Luc Besson and Bibi Naceri – would benefit intensely from the exploitation of its best charms, of which its setting is the most interesting (and most underused).
The film is a remake of Pierre Morel’s District B13 (which Besson and Naceri also scripted, and which also starred Brick Mansions co-star David Belle, famous for inventing parkour), and follows the events of the first film so closely that almost every character still has the same name. The action, however, has been moved from Paris to Detroit, and the time frame has been pushed back to 2018. In this distant, future Detroit, a sprawling housing project known as “Brick Mansions” (yes) has been deemed so toxic, so criminal, so irreparable, that it’s been walled off from the rest of the city, stripped of its services, and left to fester.
Unsurprisingly, the criminal element that made the city turn against the Mansions in the first place rises to the top, led by ruthless drug kingpin Tremaine (RZA), who rules things with a relatively iron fist. However, not everyone in Brick Mansions wants to commit crimes or do drugs, though no one is more dedicated to snuffing out the bad stuff than Lino (Belle), who gets his rocks off by, well, disposing of Tremaine’s rocks. When we first meet him, he’s trying to dump copious kilos of cocaine down his bathtub, cocaine he’s stolen from Tremaine’s goons in a sweet, if misguided attempt to rid his neighborhood of drugs.
Tremaine is an interesting, if purposefully quirky villain. (He likes cooking! And also killing!) RZA does well with the role, and it sure doesn’t hurt that he gets to fire off the best (read: silliest) lines in the entire film. At one point, he quotes Bob Marley in the most inappropriate of situations, and it just sort of seems par for the course.
In any case, good luck and all that to Lino, because it soon becomes apparent that Tremaine has got the “in” with the cops, and corruption outside the walls is just as vicious and viral as crime inside them. Except – wait! Is that a good cop? It is! It really is!
Enter Detective Damien Collier (Paul Walker), a good cop from a line of good cops who is determined to bring down Tremaine – mainly for personal reasons – and is willing to do just about anything it takes to meet that end. Does “anything” mean teaming up with Lino, who is reeling from the news that Tremaine has kidnapped his girlfriend Lola (Catalina Denis) to lure him in? Of course it does. Does that “anything” also mean infiltrating the Brick Mansions once Tremaine steals a nuclear bomb that is just ticking away, ready to blow? Obviously.
(It must be noted that it’s somewhat difficult to watch the recently departed Walker on the screen, if only because his turn in Brick Mansions is so indicative of the kind of work he could do and do well. As Damien, he’s handsome, charming, funny, and game for some inventive action, and when he and Belle start in on some scattered mismatched buddy cop-type stuff, it’s quite amusing.)
The action of Brick Mansions is fundamentally built on Belle’s parkour skills, and while they are exhibited early on, the film actually demands more show-stopping numbers like the chase that starts the film. Once Lino and Collier team up to take down the baddies and save the city, Belle and Walker start breaking out a little parkour a deux, with the duo matching each other for some side by side twists and dives that are both surprising and genuinely crowd-pleasing.
Unfortunately, just likes its nifty setting, Belle’s skills and Walker’s willingness to match them are underutilized. Just as the pair really gets cooking, the film slows down the action to a pace better suited to a drunken snail, not a dude duo that can rocket through walls and windows. Despite a slim 93-minute runtime and an actually ticking clock attached to a nuclear device, the film’s second half lacks momentum or tension, and just as everything should be ratcheting up exponentially and intensely, Brick Mansions falls flat. There’s nothing driving this thing, and even when it gets to some dramatic (read: bold and sort of silly) plot movements, all we really want is more mind-bending parkour, more cheap jokes from our pair of unlikely heroes, and more interest in its apparently important setting.
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