Brick Mansions is fast and furious but the final twist is more ridiculous than revelatory

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By A.O. Scott (The New York Times News Service)
  • Published 27.04.14

Brick Mansions (U/A)
Director: Camille Delamarre
Cast: Paul Walker, David Belle, RZA, Gouchy Boy, Catalina Denis, Carlo Rota
Running time: 89 minutes

As is not uncommon with movies of this kind, a certain amount of the dialogue in Brick Mansions consists of excited elaborations of the obvious, perhaps for the benefit of viewers who missed something while texting or dozing.

During a foot chase, when the pursued parties have succeeded in locking a door from the outside, one of the pursuers remarks: “They locked the door from the outside!” In the midst of a later chase (there are a lot of them), when the guys who locked that door are hiding on an abandoned school bus, someone shouts: “They’re on the bus!” And when it is revealed that one of the chief villains is in possession of a military-grade rocket, the strangeness of this fact does not go unnoticed: “Only a crazy person would have a rocket!”

This movie, a remake of the 2004 French franchise-starter District B13, can be enjoyably crazy in its hectic, cartoonish way. The rocket, with a neutron bomb strapped to it, is aimed at downtown Detroit, where it threatens to kill three million people. This is a generous estimate for a city that has notoriously suffered a drastic population loss in recent decades, and also a clue that the Detroit of Brick Mansions is more idea than place — a convenient shorthand for urban decay.

While no one would want Brick Mansions, directed by Camille Delamarre under the aegis of the genre auteur Luc Besson, to be a work of realism, it does set up topical expectations that it doesn’t quite satisfy. Brawny, dumb and preposterous, it nonetheless comes tantalisingly close to being a high-impact allegory of race, class and real estate in a post-industrial, new-Gilded Age America.

But enough about that. One of the film’s main reasons for being is to provide a showcase for David Belle, also a star of B13 and one of the originators of the acrobatic martial art known as parkour.

Parkour, which involves a lot of running along walls and leaping through stairwells, has been an action-movie staple for almost a decade, and Belle turns parts of Brick Mansions into a master class. He plays Lino, a European expatriate living for some reason in the housing projects that give the film its title and annoying the drug dealers who run the place.

It’s 2018, and Detroit is under martial law, Brick Mansions is sealed behind checkpoints and security walls, and the mayor and his cronies have cooked up a shady redevelopment scheme. Standing in the way of their plans is Tremaine Alexander (RZA, still best known as one of the masterminds of the Wu-Tang Clan), a narcotics kingpin with an army of hooligans and a serious interest in cooking. Lino and the rugged undercover cop Damien Collier (Paul Walker) are dispatched to take care of Tremaine, who killed Damien’s father and has taken Lino’s former girlfriend, Lola (Catalina Denis), as a hostage.

The movie bites off more plot than it can comfortably chew, making a crucial final twist more ridiculous than revelatory. But narrative coherence is irrelevant here. Delamarre is not an action virtuoso, but his visual style, heavily indebted to the Grand Theft Auto video games, is appropriately rough and kinetic.

Paul Walker, the anchor of the Fast and Furious franchise and who died in a car accident in November, demonstrates why he will be missed. He brought quiet charisma to noisy movies and seemed to know instinctively just how seriously to take what he was doing.

He also graciously allowed himself to be upstaged by wilder performers. In Brick Mansions, that job falls mainly to RZA, whose line readings fuse B-movie menace and sketch-comedy parody and whose place in the hip hop pantheon provides a credibility that the picture may not entirely deserve.

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