Brick Mansions, the 2014 remake of the 2004 French film District B13, is an example of a thrilling movie made by people who understand what audiences are looking for in an action film. Starring David Belle (reprising his role from the original) as a former criminal trying to rescue his girlfriend, the late Paul Walker as an undercover police officer who reluctantly agrees to work with Belle, and RZA as a ruthless drug kingpin both are trying to bring down, Brick Mansions offers a unique filmgoing experience for these key reasons:
An Ideal Action Premise
Brick Mansions takes place in the not-too-distant future. In an attempt to contain crime, rather than prevent it, Detroit leaders have constructed a large wall restricting travel to and from a dangerous part of the city that’s been overrun by drug dealers, murderers, and other intimidating characters. The film’s protagonists must navigate this threatening terrain to take down a crime lord, evading those who will stop at nothing to protect their boss.
Confining the action to a single location is a great premise for an action film. Although not all successful action movies adhere to this formula, plenty of the more memorable entries in this genre, from Die Hard to The Rock, do.
There are many reasons this type of scenario works. First, the location the characters operate in tends to be a dangerous one. They are usually surrounded by villains and can’t easily escape. Trapping the protagonists in one setting increases the tension because the characters must be constantly vigilant in order to stay alive.
This also provides for strong action sequences. If a character can flee to any part of the globe as soon as trouble arises, there’s a good chance he or she can evade chases, fights, shootouts, and all the other types of scenarios people want to see when they watch action movies. However, if a character is confined to a single location, then the odds that he or she will run into trouble are much higher. This means there’s a lot more potential for action.
Brick Mansions delivers on this potential for action throughout the film. After all, David Belle wasn’t merely recast because he had a role in the original French version. Although he is a talented actor, a studio might have been tempted to cast a native English speaker in the remake, were it not for the fact that Belle is very skilled at parkour. In fact, he is one of its cofounders. This sport, also known as “free running,” essentially involves using elements within the immediate environment to get from Point A to Point B as efficiently as possible. That means jumping over obstacles, hopping from the roof of one building to another, and basically putting on a stunning display of athletic ability.
Parkour is ideal for many action sequences because it elevates a scene commonly found in many action movies, the chase scene, into a demonstration of incredible stunt work. Thus, the emotional and dramatic weight of the scene is enhanced by a unique style of action.
As he did in District B13, Belle performs incredible feats of athleticism, while maintaining a strong grip on his character’s identity and motivations. The result is a type of action filmmaking that can be very difficult to find in many American movies. Too often, American action film directors rely on handheld cameras, extremely fast editing, and generically tense music to communicate to viewers that something thrilling is occurring on screen.
The problem is that this illusion often doesn’t hold up. Even if it does, the action sequences in these types of movies are rarely as entertaining as those in their foreign counterparts. The shaky cinematography makes it difficult to follow the action being depicted, the fast editing conceals the fact that the movie’s stunt work may be lacking, and the music is simply a cheap trick to inject a certain degree of intensity into the scene.
Non-American action films are different. Their directors appreciate the importance of properly framing and editing action sequences for maximum effect. Many American filmmakers essentially try to conceal poor choreography and staging via filming and editing techniques, whereas many non-American action filmmakers try to highlight strong choreography and staging via techniques designed to showcase the skills of everyone involved.
Brick Mansions isn’t just an entertaining action movie; it’s also an important one. Many American filmgoers are unfamiliar with the work being done by filmmakers like those behind District B13. By embracing what made the original great, this remake introduces American audiences to a whole new style of filmmaking.