“Escape From New York” must have made some impression on Luc Besson in the French action specialist’s younger years. Besson riffed on the cult fave a decade ago with his script for “District B13,” a dystopian look at a walled-off Paris ghetto — and one of moviegoers’ first introductions to the urban gymnastics of parkour.
A couple years ago, Besson wrote and produced “Lockout,” taking the “Escape” premise of a convict dropped into no man’s land and shifting the story to outer space. And now comes the Besson-scripted “Brick Mansions,” an Americanized “B13” remake featuring Paul Walker in one of his final roles. (Not that the movie’s marketing treats this as anything other than business as usual where the late “Fast & Furious” star is concerned. Better than morbid exploitation dressed up as a tribute, we guess.)
While Walker of course gets top billing, an equal draw is parkour pioneer David Belle, who reprises his “B13” role as Lino, a fleet-footed, good-hearted tenement dweller.
The crumbling setting this time is the Brick Mansions section of near-future Detroit, which city politicos callously eye as a megabucks redevelopment opportunity, residents be damned. (The scenes establishing this feel more like classic “RoboCop” than the “RoboCop” remake.) When Lino gets hold of a drug shipment and trashes it to keep it off the street, he runs afoul of local kingpin Tremaine (rapper-turned-maddeningly uneven actor RZA) — and starts running, period, in a flashy footchase opener. Tremaine’s men promptly kidnap Lino’s girlfriend (Catalina Denis) to make sure he doesn’t wander too far.
Meanwhile, driven undercover cop Collier (Walker) is given a critical assignment to enter the no-go zone and disarm a nuke that’s wound up with Tremaine. (Talk about having his bling-encrusted finger in a lot of pies.) Collier and Lino join forces for a little bad-guy busting — but they also make some surprising discoveries about the city’s inner workings along the way, in socialist-minded messages that Besson carries over from the original.
The thematic stuff, while well-intentioned, is also clunky, and ultimately beside the point. Action, obviously, is what you’re after. Belle may look a little like David Arquette made over as a stunt stud, but he also still looks plenty limber ten years on, and his act hasn’t gotten old. (We had wondered, seeing as how even James Bond was glomming onto parkour by ’06.) Still, there’s not enough of Belle’s artistry here, given that part of the remake mandate presumably was to deliver something even bigger and better.
As for Walker, he brings the same guilty-pleasure, soap-hunk intensity as always, and does his best to keep up with his springy costar, even if director Camille Delamarre too often lets him look like an acrobatics prop. (Delamarre’s understylized work also makes for one of the brighter looking dystopias you’ll see.)
Walker has a great, wild scene hanging from the trunk of a getaway car early on, but seeing him behind the wheel stirs a jumble of conflicted feelings. You may wish the movie did more with a couple of funny, fleeting bits of interplay between its leads, to give us something else to remember Walker by.