Brick Mansions is a bad movie.
There, I got it out of the way. But now let's delve deeper.
Brick Mansions is a remake of the 2004 French film, District 13, and- as RZA put it when he showed up in the theater to personally introduce the film- it got remade because the folks behind it "wanted to Americanize it." Not sure that's any reason to remake a movie, but nonetheless, it happened.
It's set in the near future, and has been moved to Detroit. In this dystopian future, a section of Detroit has been barricaded off. Walls were put up to enclose it, and security checkpoints were installed to monitor who goes in and out. Why? To segregate the poor folks from the rich folks. So this section of town, referred to as "Brick Mansions," is a sprawling ghetto filled with criminal lowlifes and anyone unfortunate enough to not be wealthy. We're given this full setup within about a minute of the movie starting, seemingly so we can dive headfirst into the story.
The problem is, whatever story there is, is bogged down by shoddy production value, and actors that are either sleepwalking through their roles or walking cartoon characters. The overall production seems very cheap and hastily thrown together. If not for Paul Walker's presence, I'd swear I was watching a straight-to-video/DVD/Netflix.
Which brings us to Walker...
For better or worse, this film is likely to draw extra attention because of the late actor's appearance in it. His work here, as undercover cop Damian Collier, is amongst the final roles he shot before his untimely death. I would love to sit here and rave about his work in this movie, and give him some posthumous praise. Unfortunately, he falls into the first category I named before- the sleepwalking one. The actor coasts through the movie, playing a flat version of his already not-too-layered Brian O'Connor character from the Fast & Furious movies. And, while one could give him a pass for not bringing his best thespian efforts to a mindless action film, he even disappoints in the action. In the action pieces where he's not behind the wheel, or doing something with cars, he looks out of place. Walker was given lots of hand-to-hand combat scenes that just lack the crispness, and oomph you would expect in a movie like this. Not that the shaky cameras and extreme close-ups didn't do their best to mask that.
David Belle is the other half of this two-hander, playing an ex-con that lives within "Brick Mansions" that teams up with Detective Collier to take down the film's big bad, Tremaine Alexander (RZA). Belle, the French actor and martial artist credited as one of the creators of parkour, is reprising his role from the original film. This time, his name is Lino, and his meticulously choreographed sequences are the highlight of the film. He does some jaw-dropping stunts, exchanges witty one-liners, and is the true star of the film. But we're never really given too much to work with. What you know about him at the beginning, is the same you know at the end. He has no arc, and Luc Besson's script doesn't try to flesh out the character at all. So he's cool, he can do neat things, he cares about the people of "Brick Mansions," and he's got a gorgeous girl he's fighting for. That's all we get.
The rest of the cast is all over the place. RZA proves he should stay behind a microphone instead of in front of a camera, all the various thugs have fun playing total caricatures, Catalina Denis- the gorgeous girl I mentioned before- does a decent job but isn't given a whole lot to do, and Ayisha Issa does what she can as Tremaine's right-hand villainess. It's a shame that more effort wasn't put into the performances, across the board, cause there are points in the script which could've been really funny, or provided some insight, which got lost with flat line-readings and poorly paced scenes. Oh, and all of the actors in the "evil rich politicians" scenes are cringeworthy.
As the film reaches its final scenes, you can tell there's somewhat of an attempt at social commentary that is damn near impossible to take seriously. But it's there, in a ham-fisted, clunky kind of way. If the film had some sort of sound internal logic, and appeared to be smarter from the start, then those big ideas might have landed. Instead, it goes nowhere because of logic-free plotting, and uneven character choices.
Just about the only good things I walked away with here was A) The parkour sequences are fun as hell to watch, B) There are a couple of meta moments that I got a kick out of (RZA incorporating a line from a Wu Tang song into his dialogue, and Walker needing to drive when a Mustang GT presents itself), and C) I'll take solace in the fact that this movie wasn't made for me. I may not have liked it, but there's that segment of fans- who love those grindhouse-like martial arts movies, with a little hip-hop vibe thrown in- that might eat this up.
Brick Mansions takes itself about as seriously as the Machete movies do. Unfortunately, it didn't have the budget of those films, a cast ready to sink its teeth into the material, or a gifted director calling the shots. You may get some cheap thrills out of this one, but it's ultimately very forgettable.