Although there’s little here if you’ve seen District 13, Brick Mansions still sufficiently justifies its existence with fun lead turns and a rejiggered finale.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Films like Brick Mansions primarily exist because studios (depressingly rightly, I must add) believe that people from English-speaking countries don’t want to watch perfectly serviceable and exciting action films in foreign languages. As a result, any time that such a film is released and does reasonably well, a countdown clock practically appears above its head to the inevitable English-language remake; oftentimes ridiculously similar to the original to boot because “Hey, it’s not like anybody except snobby film students will have seen the original, right? It’s not like they’re going to notice!” That’s not to say that they’re always bad films, after all they are often ripping straight from great damn movies, but it does mean that they often fail to justify their own existences.
Some of those films, however, decide to alter the source material in certain ways. Sometimes that involves Americanising the product to supposedly make it more palatable to audiences, sometimes it involves altering certain plot twists and plot points in an attempt to “out-do” the original. Usually, all this serves to do is lower the resulting product; yeah, it now has a reason for existing but it’s also kinda lost what made the source material entertaining in the first place. Brick Mansions, a remake of a 2004 French action film by the name of District 13,tries both, applying American action film techniques to the original’s parkour-focussed setpieces and futzing about with what was a perfectly great and usable final half hour. The result, yes, does make the film inferior to the original but it still copies, and leaves well enough alone, enough of the things that made District 13 work to make a very fun action film for people who may not have seen the original.
So, the year is 2018 and Detroit has been classed as the single most dangerous and crime-ridden city in America (people from Detroit, feel free to crack your self-deprecatory jokes about the ludicrousness of this premise now, we’ll wait). In response, the city’s authorities walled off a particularly troublesome section of the city, rechristened it Brick Mansions and left it to its own devices. Well, until the leader of the area’s drug trade, Tremaine (RZA, who will henceforth be referred to in this review by a different one of his many aliases each time he comes up), somehow acquires a nuclear bomb that will detonate in 12 hours and blow Brick Mansions off the face of the Earth. Enter undercover detective Damien Collier (the late Paul Walker) who is assigned the task of breaking into Brick Mansions in order to disarm the bomb, along with his own personal mission of getting revenge on Tremaine, who killed his father. He’s paired with Leno (David Belle in the exact same role he played in the original), seemingly the only honest citizen in Brick Mansions, and who also holds a grudge against Tremaine for kidnapping his ex-girlfriend (Catalina Denis).
As those who have seen the original will already be able to tell, this is pretty much the same set-up as that for District 13 and, for about the first hour, events progress as they did in that film with little deviation. Tremaine is still quick to kill anybody who proves themselves to be the slightest bit useless, Leno and Damien still have a slow-burn burgeoning respect for one another and the pre-plot prologue for Leno is pretty much the exact same as before. The time-span has been considerably shrunken down (there’s no six month time-skip in addition to that reduced detonation timer), K2’s (here named Big Cecil) role has been down-sized to the point of near-irrelevance with the majority of his material instead being given over to a new, possibly-lesbian female bodyguard by the name of Rayza (it’s that kind of film, folks, get with the program), Lola (the new name for Leno’s ex-girlfriend) is more pro-active in trying to escape seeing as she’s no longer a junkie and there’s Damien’s reason for wanting Tremaine to go down, but other than that it’s basically the same first hour, plot-wise.
Yes, I do realise that I basically just spent an entire paragraph listing a whole bunch of changes. They’re incidental to the main story, the same beats are still hit by both films, so my point still stands.
The biggest change to how the film feels comes when it’s time for action scenes to happen which, this being a 90 minute on-the-dot action film, tends to happen quite a fair bit. District 13 shot its action scenes clearly, lots of wide-angles with longer takes and more distant shots in order to set up a good sense of scale and to better display what its actors are doing. Brick Mansions is an American film, however, and so most of the action scenes are shot in handheld shaky-cam with very conspicuously cheap CG, quick takes and lots of close-ups; not enough to be incomprehensible but enough to clearly stifle the impact of most of the sequences like Leno’s opening escape from Tremaine’s men. Perhaps to compensate for this, most of the parkour has been stripped out of the film. Instead, there’s a bit more variety with more fight scenes and a car chase or two thrown into the equation. The suffocating shooting and editing keep them from becoming memorably great but they’re all fun, they’re all well-paced and they’re mostly exciting.
In fact, fun is what I would most characterise Brick Mansions. Much like District 13, this is a film that knows just how silly it is and never fails to embrace that silliness. Even though the propulsive French electro score that backed the original has been jettisoned for Generic Hollywood Action Thriller Score #173, every action scene is paced and filled with beats designed more to make you laugh and feel like you’re having a good time than to be played serious. An early action scene for Damien involves him chasing down Morris O’Brien from 24 by clinging onto the back of his car as it speeds through downtown traffic late at night, for example. Dialogue, meanwhile, is very knowingly silly and trashy, all quippy one-liners and tenuously linked villainous monologues and having certain characters angrily proclaim that somebody has “gone soft” when they “pussy out” on something. We’re not operating at Fast & Furious levels of fun camp here, even if, again, the main crux of the plot involves the disarming of a nuclear bomb, but it’s got that kind of breezy and easy-to-get-swept-up-in easy-going nature which is nice to see in an action film, nowadays.
In that respect, Paul Walker was a very canny casting choice for the lead role. He brings the same natural charm and laidback charisma that he brought to the Fast & Furious franchise by, basically, playing the straight man to the mayhem around him. David Belle gets to be the cool badass capable of ridiculous feats, Bobby Digital needs to be a hammy old-school Bond villain, Morris @’Brien from 24 has to be a really hammy old-school Bond villain and Aylia Issa as Rayza pretty much just plays psycho-lesbian, so Walker is kinda forced into Straight Man by default. He is great, though; the man knew how to time his quips or how to adequately express his disbelief at events unfolding with a non-verbal rolling of the eyes or terrified “OH CRAP!” facial reaction and he puts them to good use, as well as striking up a very natural chemistry with Belle. If this was going to be Walker’s career trajectory after Fast & Furious wound down, then it’s an extra shame that we lost him, really, because he is a very good fit for this kind of film.
That’s not to say this is totally Walker’s show, though. Even with a very noticeably dubbed-in voice, Belle is a capable enough co-lead. He never flubs any line readings, there’s the aforementioned chemistry with Walker and he’s got a good screen presence. Carlo Rota (who I keep unprofessionally referring to as Morris O’Brien from 24 because I’m horrible like that) makes a very good impression with his short screen time, getting the chance to indulge in all of his hammiest impulses. And as for The King Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig Allah? Yeah, he’s pretty great. The film futzes with its last half hour in a way that really shouldn’t work but Rzarector manages to force it into working by sheer willpower and charisma. But even before that comes around, Prince Rakeem still puts in good fun work, he even manages to make a clunky shoehorning in of a reference to one of the Wu-Tang Clan’s most notable hits come off… not as horrifically awkward as it could have.
Speaking of Bobby Boulders, there is a reason why I keep noting that the first hour is mostly the same as that of District 13’s. See, Brick Mansions decides that the outcome of District 13 is not good enough for it and rejiggers a lot of the last half hour. Anybody who has seen District 13 will probably have all the alarm bells going off, right now, cos I know I did when it started happening but I should note that, weirdly, it kinda works. Again, this is primarily thanks to the work of The Razor but it’s also because it still sticks to the tone of both the film up to that point and the original film it’s based on. That non-cynical, ridiculous yet charming and feel-good ending still exists, but the path to get there is altered and waylaid in order to get the message (which District 13 did have but mostly left content to bubble under the surface) across in a much louder and more obvious context. More cynical viewers will instead see it as the film trying to shoot down any possible claims of it being racist (this is a film in which two white guys beat their way across a neighbourhood of villains who happen to be predominately black) and it reeeeally stretches past the point of believability, but it somehow worked because the tone stayed consistent and some anvils need dropping every now and again.
That being said, Brick Mansions is not some kind of masterwork, it’s not some super important movie and it’s nowhere near being better than the original, mainly down to the action scenes being filmed in that one bad way that Hollywood knows how to shoot action scenes and which we really should stop encouraging by this point. What it is, though, is a fast, light and fun action romp that doesn’t have a bad bone in its body and a very good set of lead performances. If you have seen District 13, there’s little for you here unless you’re dying to see the futzed around-with-finale. If you haven’t and you don’t want to because subtitles, or you have and you just want a fun way to kill 90 minutes, than Brick Mansions really is worth your time. It just about justifies its existence.