The shocking death of actor Paul Walker last December will be reverberating throughout the rest of this movie season, as he died at the peak of his fame and visibility with multiple films either completed or near-completed at the time. Ironically, it really does seem to have taken the tragedy of his death for Walker’s worth as a movie star to be properly visible. Often dismissed as just another bland handsome stock-type, he had a keen gift for anchoring absurdity for an audience without overwhelming the bigger picture. This was most notable in the Fast & Furious films where his Brian O’Connor played reliable straight man to Vin Diesel’s more colorful Domenic Toretto.
The first of these posthumous releases, the Hurricane Katrina/battery-powered-baby thriller Hours, has already come and gone. The big one, Fast & Furious 7, is currently being tweaked in order to give Walker’s character a suitable send-off. Until then, we have Brick Mansions, a U.S.-set remake of the 2009 French action hit District B13, to tide us over, and to provide action fans with something (more or less) “new” to watch while we wait for the (hypothetically) good summer blockbusters to start rolling in which hopefully begins when Godzilla arrives in May.
Mansions is nearly shot-for-shot remake of its French predecessor, right down to parkour legend David Belle reprising his role from the first film. I actually don’t have a problem with this. District B13 was already an out-and-proud “cover” of John Carpenter’s Escape From NY/LA films. The basic setup, a cop and criminal teaming up to extract a warhead from the lawless, walled-off ghetto of a major city in the near future, is both simple and rife with culturally-specific story possibilities that I wouldn’t mind seeing a bunch of countries try to remake in their own versions.
In this case, the action has been relocated to near-future Detroit, and whereas B13’s class conscious social undercurrent was mainly drawn from the segregation of poor predominantly-immigrant neighborhoods in Paris, Mansion’s is all about gentrification and the clash of classes. “Brick Mansions” is the name given to Detroit’s blighted housing projects in the near future after the murder of a hero cop by gang members loyal to drug-kingpin Tremaine (The RZA) convinced the city that the neighborhoods were beyond saving and needed to be walled-off from the rest of the city. Walker is Damien, the son of the dead cop who’s dedicated his life to dismantling Tremaine’s operation and ultimately killing him – Brick Mansions or no. Belle (as in the earlier film) is Leito, a longtime resident of Brick Mansions who uses his martial arts and parkour skills to battle the gangs on his own terms. The two are forced into reluctant alliance when Tremaine’s men hijack a nuclear weapon and aim to ransom the city for it.
The film takes it’s time setting all this up, including giving each hero an action scene to themselves (unlike the original, only Leito has super-awesome kung-fu powers this time while Damien is a gunman and driver, for the most part) and some opportunity for Tremaine to hint that he’s a more complicated character than he first appears. This is fairly important, since the second and third acts are pretty-much one protracted action scene wherein Leito and Damien drive, shoot, fight, talk, stealth and jump their way in and out of Tremaine’s stronghold trying to work out how to get the bomb and liberate Leito’s abducted ex-girlfriend Lola – though it turns out she’s pretty good at getting herself out of trouble.
Yes, amusingly, once again Walker winds up as the “normal” in a cast of colorful, sometimes outlandish larger-than-life personas, but it still works. He and Belle have a fun buddy-cop back-and-forth that helps keep the almost preposterous speed at which they work out their team-up and scheming, and he acquits himself admirably in the fight scenes even while graciously letting his more limber co-star shine in the big jump-stunts. Catalina Denis is a strong presence as Lola, though she only barely escapes default distressed-damsel status by sheer force of will. This is the one character who was significantly more interesting in the original.
The RZA, still one of the most unusual folks I’ve had the opportunity to interview, turns in what might be his best acting performance as Tremaine. RZA’s range runs hot or cold. So much of the Wu-Tang Clan master’s persona is performance I wonder if it’s hard for him to level-shift between that, a movie character and whatever he considers his real self to be. But he’s really showed up to play as Tremaine, an unapologetic villain who seems to adopt the mantle of brute thuggery by necessity while seething with resentment that people so readily accept that that’s all he is. There’s a series of increasingly ridiculous turnarounds involving his character in the film’s final third (they evidently didn’t think the original film’s big twist was “twisty” enough) that “work” almost exclusively because RZA’s sheer charisma forces them to work. Canadian martial-artist Ayisha Issa rounds out the cast as Tremaine’s henchwoman Rayzah, stealing almost all of her scenes and making a big impression despite the fact that it feels like a lot of her scenes might’ve been cut or trimmed to keep the film PG-13.
Let’s be real, here: For U.S. audiences, at least, Brick Mansions is mainly hitting theaters this weekend as a “counterprogramming” distraction – the token “guy movie” playing opposite the juggernaut that many are predicting the female-targeted The Other Woman will be. But as distractions go it’s a lot of fun, a totally solid action piece with an admirable (and admirably unobtrusive) social-consciousness and a killer final act. And, yes, it serves as another reminder of a promising star who was taken too soon.