“Brick Mansions” (2014): Walker, Belle, & RZA Rock a (More) Dystopian Detroit
After I watch an action movie, but before I write about it, I like to run an “aspirational fitness” test. Basically, when I make the necessary constitutional visit to the theater restroom after seeing the film, I look in the mirror. If I then have the thought, “I really need to work out more,” the movie passes the test.
Today, Brick Mansions (2014) passed this test.
Granted, I often have this thought while looking in the mirror, no matter what activity I’ve just been doing. However, it’s the intensity of the thought that counts. With Brick Mansions, which was released in U.S. movie theaters today, part of this intensity certainly had to do with the fact that the movie is Paul Walker’s penultimate movie. He died during the filming of his final movie, Fast & Furious 7 (costarring Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson), which is now due to be released in April 2015). Walker’s untimely death reminds me of my own mortality, which motivates me to maximize my potential before it’s too late.
In Brick Mansions, Walker plays the part of Damien, an undercover detective on the police force of a futuristic Detroit. In the dystopian world of the movie, Detroit has become even worse in terms of crime than it is now. The solution to this problem is to wall off the most criminal section of the city, which is known as Brick Mansions. Anyone entering or leaving must pass through military-controlled checkpoints. Not only does this recall the temporizing measure often taken recently by humans beset by zombies in the movies (e.g. World War Z , Warm Bodies ), but also the former “Walled City” of the Kowloon section of Hong Kong and its still-existing Chungking Mansions, which was immortalized in the film, Chungking Express (1994) — see my review. All of these locales are or were virtually ungoverned areas, in which the inhabitants fend for themselves and live by their own rules.
Narrated by the camera (there is no voice-over narration), the audience enjoys the benefit of an omniscient third-person point-of-view of the Detroit dystopia. From the beginning, it knows crucial facts that Damien does not — such as the plans that Detroit’s mayor (Bruce Ramsay) has for Brick Mansions and its denizens. What Damien does know is that its de facto ruler, Tremaine (RZA), a former Army officer turned crime boss, drug trafficker, and arms dealer, has stolen a neutron bomb from a military convoy. Damien’s orders are to infiltrate Tremaine’s headquarters, find the bomb, then inactivate it with a code that will be sent to him electronically once he has found it.
Although Damien has run undercover ops in Brick Mansions before, he is paired with Lino (David Belle), who has an even more intimate knowledge of their target’s terrain. Lino, who lives in Brick Mansions, had been on a one-man crusade against Tremaine until he was betrayed by a corrupt Army checkpoint commander. Lino’s motivation to work with Damien is that Tremaine is holding his girlfriend, Lola (Catalina Denis) hostage until Damien makes good on twenty kilos of heroin that he stole from Tremaine and destroyed. A dystopian action villain, Tremaine is assisted in his self-promoting lawlessness by both high technology and updated versions of classic gangster lieutenants, including his hot moll, Rayzah (Ayisha Issa) and his faithful but sometimes bumbling number-two man, K2 (Gouchy Boy).
Directed by Camille Delamarre and written by Luc Besson and Bibi Naceri, this film is a faithful remake of Besson’s Banlieue 13 (District B13) (2004) — so faithful, in fact, that it features David Belle in a reprise of his role in the French movie. Belle appears to work well with Walker and RZA. The physical fight scenes involving Walker and Belle (both fighting each other and alongside each other) are well choreographed, although Belle is more convincing than Walker as a fighter. There is also plenty of gunplay and a good number of chase scenes, which often feature the high-performance automobiles we naturally associate with Walker’s films. While the screenplay is nothing original (crikey, it’s an action movie, after all — we’re not expecting Shakespeare), it translated fairly well to the screen and plays smoothly and quickly. There’s no opportunity to check your watch or phone for the time before the movie’s over.
The major thing that I mark this film down for is what Gone with the Twins referred to as its “palpable feeling of restraint.” This doesn’t apply just to the violence in its action scenes. There are sexual themes — such as Rayzah’s lesbian/BDSM vibe — that just don’t get developed. We also don’t see any scenes that give us the emotional reasons that motivate Lino to rescue Lola. It seems like he’s more keen to kick Tremaine’s ass than to fondle Lola’s. In fact, Rayzah shows more sexual interest in Lola than Lino does.
But, once again, it’s an action movie, not a drama, romance, or erotic film. Judging it on the basis of its genre, Brick Mansions is definitely worth a watch, although you might want to wait until it’s released on DVD and streaming video (e.g., Netflix or Amazon).