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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

David Belle hardcore parkours all over the place in "Brick Mansions," now playing.

"Brick Mansions" requires taking too many bricks to the head


Early on in "Brick Mansions," Hollywood's hyperkinetic redubbing of the 2004 French parkour-injected action movie "District B13," the late Paul Walker delivers a wanted drug lord to a police station mid car chase by plowing his vehicle into a barricade. The accident launches the bad guy out through the windshield, through the station's front door and into custody; Walker walks away completely unharmed.

The scene is meant to be a cartoonishly amusing action movie punch line. Now, it's an uneasy reminder of a tragedy, one that claimed the life of the young actor and father, as well as the life of his friend Roger Rodas.

It's not the only one either. Walker's character proceeds to crash various cars at high speeds two more times during "Brick Mansions." All three times, he walks away without even a scratch, without even needing a moment. And all three moments feel like a lie, like seeing a ghost. The off-screen world's shadow can't help uncomfortably creeping in, haunting what's intended to be mindless escapism with sad reality.

They're fleeting moments, but they faintly and unpleasantly shock the brain awake, a problematic situation for "Brick Mansions" considering it's a bone-headed movie that can really only be enjoyed with the brain turned completely off. The film can be forgiven for unfortunate circumstances beyond its control; its plentiful, painfully glaring other cinematic flaws within its power, less so.

Walker plays Damien Collier, an undercover cop tasked with taking out the many murderous, drug-dealing scumbags roaming about dystopian 2018 Detroit. There's one villain in particular Damien has his sights dead set on: Tremaine Alexander (RZA, having fun breaking bad), a drug lord, weapons dealer, crime boss and potential foodie considering how much time he spends cooking.

More importantly to Damien, however, is that Tremaine killed his cop father. He's so motivated for revenge, he can't just circle Tremaine's photo on his wall of evidence all tortured detectives have according to TV and movies; he has to say, "You're next!," to a room of no one, just in case the audience wasn't picking up on the first-grade symbolism. The only problem is that Tremaine's holed up in Brick Mansions, a slum so out of control and far gone that it's been walled off from the rest of Detroit and left to its own devices.

He finally gets his chance for revenge when the city's sniveling mayor recruits him to infiltrate Brick Mansions and find an accidentally activated neutron bomb Tremaine's crew found just laying in the middle of the street one night (as one does). To help him navigate the treacherous gang-littered terrain, Damien is teamed up with Lino ("District B13" star David Belle), a well-intentioned ex-con who's been trying to clean up the streets of Tremaine's coke but in the process got his ex-girlfriend (Catalina Denis, dressed up like a diner waitress as imagined by a Britney Spears music video) kidnapped.

In typical buddy cop fashion, the two originally have friction, fighting over Lino's checkered past and who gets to drive their stolen police van (the only recorded time two tough guys have ever fought over van privileges). Once they discover their common enemy, they become an unstoppable team, going hardcore parkour all over the city.

Though Walker comes first billed, the real star of "Brick Mansions" is Belle. It's certainly not for his performance. It's hard to even say he's acting in the film since almost all of his dialogue sounds hackily post-recorded into existence (he's not the only one, making the movie often feel like a poorly dubbed foreign film – which, considering its origins, it pretty much is).

No, Belle is here for his incredibly nimble and courageous parkour abilities, an athletic activity he helped found and popularize. And fittingly, he's kind of a marvel, bounding off walls and hopping between buildings like a genetic mix of a cheetah and a super ball.

Unfortunately, first-time director Camille Delamarre and his editors Carlo Rizzo and Arthur Tarnowski do a terrible job of showcasing his skill. Delamarre's expertise is surprisingly in editing, but his resume includes the hurly-burly Luc Besson-produced messes "Taken 2" and "Lockout," so "expertise" might be generous.

Much like his previous efforts, the action sequences are less edited than they are poured into a Vitamix and dumped out as over-stylized bits. The random cutting and zooming is relentless, yet it's still unable to hide the poor action direction that has characters teleporting from the ground to a roof within five seconds and firefights mere feet away from one another. Belle's graceful moves are lost in the choppy, frenetic scramble, turning them into a cheap-looking blur.

Oddly enough, Delamarre lacks confidence in his best attribute. He doesn't trust that the audience will be amazed by a man jumping a wide gap between multiple-story buildings, for instance, so he adds in a fake-looking CG hand grenade explosion. It's hard to appreciate the clearly impressive stunt work when "Brick Mansions" does everything in its power to distract from it.

Part of the distraction includes a sloppily ridiculous and cartoonish plot (one final blow is actually accompanied by a dizzy tweeting bird sound effect), and that's before the bomb gets strapped to a rocket that might as well say ACME on it.

The logistics of the future ghetto are poorly explained, the characters' relationships and developments are unearned and a late-game attempt at some political commentary falls hilariously on its face. Partly because it requires the audience to start rooting for an objectively bad human being who deals drugs, traffics weapons and murders people, but more so because it's a movie about a bomb strapped to a rocket like Wile. E. Coyote.

Meanwhile, the bomb (a fairly useless plot device since Damien's undercover work already gave him a reason to enter Brick Mansions) blows monstrous logic and plot holes – any covert evil plan, for instance, that starts with "We leave an explosive neutron device, which we'll have to get access to again at some point, unprotected out in the middle of our enemies' home" needs to be extensively re-thought – into a story that was already just floss-thin connective tissue between action scenes. And most of those, like the Battle for the Astrovan and a catfight that's a fetish free-for-all, serve no purpose to moving the story forward.

It's so relentlessly silly that "Brick Mansions" almost threatens to have the makings of a fun guilty pleasure. At 90 minutes, it's the right length, and Belle's slithering stunt work is still a minor thrill even with the careless editing. But in the end, it leaves you feeling too guilty – not only about its star's death echoing throughout the film, but about how aggressively dumb and mindlessly crafted it is.



Theaters and showtimes for Brick Mansions
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