A kinetic David Belle propelling himself through openings and vaulting over obstacles to escape capture in the decayed urban terrain of Brick Mansions is the art of parkour at its most feline. It’s utterly mesmerizing to watch. Unfortunately, Belle’s amazing athletic agility cannot alone sustain this undercooked remake of the only slightly more interesting 2004 French film District B13. To their mutual disadvantage, both films come saddled with feeble scripts co-written by Luc Besson, the reigning auteur of mediocre action movies. The premise basically remains the same: Here, an undercover Detroit cop (Walker) and a street-smart convict (Belle, reprising his role in the first film) enter the no-man’s-land of the dystopian Brick Mansions – a walled-in neighborhood ruled by ruthless criminals – to detonate a neutron bomb stolen by a drug lord against whom both men harbor personal vendettas. Belle’s limitations as an actor remain evident, though the late Paul Walker – known more for his surfer-boy good looks than anything – doesn’t fare much better. What’s worse, there’s no odd-couple chemistry between these two guys; it’s as if they’re conversing with each other in a different language. Yet, it’s hard to take your eyes off Walker in his penultimate film appearance, cognizant of his mortality and the way he was gracefully aging much in the same way as another fair-haired, blue-eyed actor named Paul.
The thugs in Brick Mansions come straight out of Central Casting. They’re Hollywood’s idealization of the contemporary criminal element, with rapper RZA exuding an elegant malevolence as the narcotics kingpin, Tremaine Alexander. But when the character inexplicably pleads for social justice on behalf of the impoverished citizenry to whom he supplies cocaine, Brick Mansions gets a little nutty. (The film’s coda is beyond nutty in this same respect.) It’s a throwback to a more liberal era when the “man” was the enemy of the people, personified here as a smarmy white mayor intent upon transforming the lawless Detroit ghetto into a landscape of skyscrapers for the rich and powerful. To the filmmakers’ credit, it’s enough to make a Fox News commentator foam at the mouth.