Detroit has fallen into disrepair, with all of the city’s undesirables exorcised to Brick Mansions, a walled estate on the outskirts of town. Tremaine (RZA) rules over Brick Mansions with a gang of thugs which include Yeti (Robert Mailett) and Rayza (Aylia Issa), and has at some point or other rubbed everyone up the wrong way. Crusader Lino (David Belle) wants revenge on Tremaine for his role in the kidnap of his girlfriend, Lola (Catalina Dennis), while undercover cop Damien (Paul Walkr) is looking to avenge his father, a respected police officer Tremaine is believed to have killed years earlier. Lino and Damien are forced to team up when Tremaine threatens the city with a neutron bomb, though the citizens of Detroit may not be the innocent victims they believe themselves to be.
Back in 2004, Pierre Morel’s District 13 (nothing to do with Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 or The Hunger Games’ Panem) opened to widespread critical acclaim, both in its native France and in various other territories around the world. At the time it drew comparisons to Ong Bak for its lack of wirework and CGI, but with hindsight its influence can be felt on everything from Casino Royale to The Raid. As such, Camille Delamarre’s French-Canadian (but English language) remake feels even more derivative than it might have done; parkour is now a regular feature in not just Hollywood movies but pop-culture at large, and what might once have felt like a brave abnegation of special effects now feels like a cliché in itself.
That said, the sheer skill of David Belle (who in addition to starring in the original movie was also one of the founding fathers of the sport) is impossible to deny. The opening set piece, in which Lino escapes from Brick Mansions by running up walls and leaping across alleyways, is genuinely astonishing, and gets things off to a surprisingly strong start. Unfortunately, while physically capable, Belle’s acting ability leaves a lot to be desired, and his stilted delivery of dialogue isn’t helped by the obvious language barrier. There are occasions where he has clearly been dubbed over, which can often be incredibly jarring. Luckily, Walker is never off-screen long enough to let the situation get too desperate. The script’s terrible, and he’s basically reprising his role from The Fast and the Furious, but that’s never stopped the actor from being able to buoy what might otherwise have been an unmanageable deadweight.
Brick Mansions’ biggest strength, however, is its sheer stupidity. It’s difficult to be hard on a film that features a rapper chopping chilies with a butcher’s knife or a model chained to a military rocket (which is itself strapped to a neutron bomb). The film has guilty pleasure written all over it, from the obvious Bond rip-offs (shark tank; femme fatale; enormous henchman) to the rent-a-dystopia previously seen in every other science fiction movie, ever. Had it gone straight to DVD Brick Mansions might even have constituted something of a find, but in cinemas it just looks confused and out of place. Even on the big screen there is a certain charm to it, however, born from some truly bizarre casting decisions and a narrative that just doesn’t care at all. Paul Walker was a lot of things but he wasn’t a martial artist, and every time Belle disappears up a wall you can’t help but smile as he searches for the nearest elevator.
There’s no getting away from the fact that this is one of the last films we will ever see Walker appear in, but what might at first glance seem like a ghoulish attempt to cash-in on the actor’s tragic death — exploitation as tribute — is really an apt celebration of Walker’s talents. Walker wasn’t a method performer, an Oscar-winner or a character actor, he was usually the best thing in bad movies. Right until the end.