Were it not for the tragic death of star Paul Walker, whose life was cut short in a freak car accident last November, then people probably wouldn’t be paying much attention to “Brick Mansions.” It is, after all, merely the latest in a long line of passable entertainments overseen by French filmmaker Luc Besson who, in the years since he gave up his position as an up-and-coming pop art visionary, has been supervising such down-and-dirty thrillers as the “Taken” films and this year’s “3 Days to Kill.” But since this is one of Walker’s final screen performances, the movie has taken on a certain amount of heft (not to mention a gloss of morbid ghoulishness), which is particularly odd given how lightweight and disposable an experience it is.
“Brick Mansions” is based on something Besson had already made before (in France): an equally shoddy, quasi-futuristic 2004 action movie called “District B13,” which starred choreographer, acrobat and occasional actor David Belle. Belle is a pioneer in the “art” of parkour. Parkour, for those of you who have never seen a Mountain Dew commercial or watched “New Girl,” is an extreme sport where you basically jump off of walls and buildings and things, like one of the lemurs in that 3D IMAX movie.
Besson recruited Belle, who most Americans are unfamiliar with, to reprise his role as Lino (in France it was Leïto), a freedom-fighting criminal who is trapped behind the walled-off ghetto known as Brick Mansions. (The French version was set in the poorer suburbs surround Paris, this one is set in inner-city Detroit.) It’s in Brick Mansions where a warlord named Tremaine (RZA) has seized control of a nuclear weapon that could, if detonated, blow up a large percentage of the city’s population. Detroit’s somewhat morally questionable mayor recruits Walker, playing a hardnosed undercover cop named Collier, to infiltrate Brick Mansions and, with the help of Belle’s Lino, disarm the warhead. Sweetening the deal considerably is the fact that, decades earlier, Collier’s father had been killed in Brick Mansions, most likely at the hands of men working for Tremaine. It’s on.
There is plenty of opportunity for satire and political commentary throughout every step of “Brick Mansions,” particularly given the current dire situation in Detroit and the city’s history as a formerly great, culturally significant manufacturing town that has given way to crime and rot. But anything even remotely thoughtful or contemporary has either been ignored or sidestepped entirely, since the movie has more important things on its mind, like watching grown men leap from building to building. The original film coasted on the fact that the action sequences, staged by future “Taken” director Pierre Morel, were 100% real, without the assistance of computerized effects. Judging by the way things look in “Brick Mansions,” that philosophy didn’t translate.
For a movie that is so based in its action sequences, they never really get your blood pumping the way they should. Raw physicality, the act of a human hurling himself through the air and squeezing through impossible spaces, is dazzling enough. A wide shot would do the trick in most of the set pieces, maybe some glacially gliding pans, with some tighter inserts for variety. But director Camille Delamarre, who previously served as Besson’s longtime editor, films everything in a frantic handheld style, allowing the camera to jerk and pull when it should instead just be focused, more simply, on capturing the genuinely jaw-dropping choreography that is unfolding. Maybe it’s Delamarre’s inexperience directing and his insecurity with having everything be super exciting every second of the movie, but it’s exhausting to watch and further muddles what is already an excessively convoluted story, since it becomes even harder to keep track of certain characters and what they are trying to accomplish.
And honestly, the plot is so overtly complicated and yet, at the same time, utterly predictable, that it doesn’t really matter what is happening. When a brief sequence towards the start of the film introduces the notion of Brick Mansions being demolished for a set of deluxe high rises, it doesn’t take much to figure out that the weapon the bad guys have inside the ghetto is really meant to go off there, no matter what noble Paul Walker and the jumpy Frenchman do to stop it. But there are some surprising character moments, particularly with RZA’s villainous character, even though the female characters are underwritten to the point of being nonexistent (one such character is literally tied to the warhead like it’s an old episode of the “Batman” TV show).
When “District B13” came out, the parkour craze already felt like it was bottoming out, so here it feels really old; even though it’s set in the future it’s basically a period movie. No matter how jaw-dropping the stunts are, they feel dusty and poorly put together, free of invention, style or verve. It probably doesn’t help matters that “Brick Mansions” is coming out so soon after “The Raid 2,” a film that takes the art of the action movie to gloriously blood-soaked new heights. (“Brick Mansions” also carries with it the neutered PG-13 rating; although there’s got to be a rougher international cut out there somewhere.) Belle is charismatic and athletic, but he’s not much of an actor, and every line he speaks, no matter the conditions, has been dubbed after the fact, in an effort to soften his French accent and make him more understandable (like they did with Tom Hardy after the footage of Bane came out).
But the question on everyone’s mind is, of course, how is Paul Walker? And the answer, somewhat predictably, is great. This is the kind of role that Walker was made for: an earnest everyman whose single-minded focus doesn’t detract from his inherent likability. What makes things even sadder is that the filmmakers let you fully embrace Walker’s age, giving weight and authority to his natural handsomeness. For so long he had either been a kid or a man with boyish good looks. As Walker matured, he became more distinguished, and in “Brick Mansions” the digital cameras are able to soak up the rugged lines that crisscross certain portions of his face. There’s a moment when Walker is getting out of an undercover gig and he takes his colored contact lenses out, allowing Walker’s natural, swimming pool-blue eyes to shine through. It was more special than any special effect. In “Brick Mansions” Walker is understated and tough, a continued testament to his frequently overlooked accomplishments as a performer. You just wish the movie surrounding him was better. [B-]