09 March 2011

District B13, District 13: Ultimatum, and Taken

Sometimes, while watching Pierre Morel's Taken, I felt a sense of magic. Not about the movie, but about me. I felt like a soothsayer, because I knew what was going to happen next and what was going to be said next (most people will), especially in those beginning thirty minutes, before the daughter is kidnapped, when the characters and their relationships are being set up. I'm not just being an asshole, I'm also being sincere: there was truly an instance in which I mouthed the dialogue along with the actress (Famke Janssen), despite never having seen the film or read the script.

It's clear that Besson now concocts whole films around a handful of attractive and sensational elements, and then hires a screenwriter to attach bullshit and perfunctory story formulas. That's too bad, on the one hand, because I'm speaking about the same Besson who once gave us better films like Le Dernier Combat (which had the courage to be what these films should be - without dialogue; some action movies in the future, I hope, will be more like silent films), The Big Blue, La Femme Nikita ... well you know who Besson is. In District 13: Ultimatum's blu-ray special features there's an interview with Cyril Raffaelli, who had a starring role in both District B13 movies and also served as fight choreographer. In this interview he's describing a moment in which he discussed his idea for a fight scene with Besson, who seemed pleased with what he was hearing. "Just so you know," Besson told him, "in this scene you're going to be holding a Van Gogh."

It's pretty great, on the other hand, because Besson still wants to create cinematic special-worlds, engineered for the delight of an appreciative audience. The action moments of Taken are when Morel shines the most, naturally, and I don't mind the way he emphasizes cinematic propulsion over continuity and logic. He edits purely for the sensational delight of the audience, and a late car chase and fight scene were expressionistic and thrilling rather than realistic and detailed. I don't mind that at all. He succeeds in engaging the audience because he thinks as an audience member seeking escapism, exaggerated emotions ("I don't like realistic movies," a friend once told me, "no, real life is boring enough.") and heightened experiences.

But in my opinion if you're going to exaggerate, and I've said this before, exaggerate all the fucking way. District B13, for example, is indeed a better movie than Taken. Not because it's smarter, no no no, but because it succeeds in capturing the bliss of decadent fantasy. It's as if the French found an abandoned Escape from New York narrative vehicle, hot-wired the thing, and drove it into 21st century Paris. Glorious! The extent of the liberation you allow your imagination is the difference between a low or high-brow film and a middle-brow film, and middle-brow films are worthless in every way except generating ticket sales and quickly becoming forgotten.

This is also why I think District 13: Ultimatum is better than District B13, even though I fell asleep three times while watching it(?!). District B13 used actor Bibi Naceri (who plays the crime lord in the movie) as co-screenwriter, and he and Besson designed some story about, um, revenge and valor, things like that. No co-screenwriter is listed for Ultimatum, and themes are borrowed from the original. Based on the Raffaelli story about the Van Gogh, and the experience of having watched the movie, I'd speculate they made the shit up while they went along, i.e. action took precedence over story. That's how they sometimes work in Hong Kong too, and I've come to appreciate the method. It allows for the superficial elements of the movie to shine, as it should.

General opinion seems to be that District B13 is the better movie. That's probably because its narrative makes more sense, relatively, and so its action has more meaning or impact. Get out of town. The meaning of the District B13 movies is action, and its true themes are punches, kicks, and parkour. Ultimatum clearly better develops these themes. The story, as it is, is ten times more confounding, outrageous, and unbelievable; as it should be. If I'm going to have a conversation with a crazy person, I want to have a conversation with the craziest goddamn person in the city, personally.

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