I teared up during Brick Mansions. I know what you’re thinking – huh? But trust me, you may have a similar experience. The film, a remake of the influential French actioner District 13, marks one of the final big screen roles (and the last completed project) for Fast & Furious star Paul Walker, who died in a car accident last year. For me, the moment came when, after the final shot faded to black, a picture of the actor appeared on the screen, captioned with the words “In Loving Memory of Paul Walker.”
As he smiled out over the theater, many viewers stood to their feet, and we all applauded. For the first time since Walker’s death, I understood a little about the actor’s fans, and just how much Walker really meant to them. He was more than just another handsome A-lister with a devil-may-care attitude; Walker’s youthful features, soft-spoken presence, and earnest performances made him profoundly relatable and endeared the actor to millions. Walker will be sorely missed, and it will be with considerable melancholy that I enter into theaters next year to see Fast & Furious 7.
For now, however, it’s with great pleasure that I can declare Brick Mansions to be Walker’s finest film. Everything that I wanted from this remake, it delivers in spades. There’s impressively strong acting (most notably from Walker but also from David Belle and RZA), a delightfully smart script and some truly awe-inspiring action sequences. Put those accomplishments together, and Brick Mansions is easily the best action thriller I’ve seen this year.
Hewing closely to the plot of the original, Brick Mansions opens with a bang, as athletic ex-con Lino (Belle) derails a drug deal by crime kingpin Tremaine (RZA) and uses his parkour skills to escape Tremaine’s army of thugs. Lino’s stand against Tremaine’s illegal operations is all the more remarkable as the backdrop comes into focus; both men live inside Brick Mansions, a section of dystopian Detroit that was deemed too dangerous to save by the city’s government and so was isolated by a large containment wall. The corrupt police officers who guard the one entrance are the only semblance of law left. When Lino’s plan goes sour, he’s detained by police and his girlfriend Lola (Catalina Denis) ends up as Tremaine’s prisoner.
Enter Damien Collier (Walker), a good cop whose father died at Tremaine’s hands. When the kingpin gains control of a dangerous device that could level the entire city, Damien finally gets the chance at vengeance he’s craved for his entire life. After he forms an uneasy alliance with Lino, the pair set out to infiltrate Brick Mansions and take down Tremaine.
Holding Brick Mansions up against District 13 is not advised. That film, though dated, flowed with a playful yet balletic ease that only a handful of action films since have been able to replicate. Director Camille Delamarre is no Pierre Morel – he keeps the camera moving with an overly frenetic energy that would be exhausting and disorienting if it weren’t for the ebullient charm of his actors. Luckily, French action icon Luc Besson embraced this remake to the point where he co-wrote the screenplay with the original film’s writer, Bibi Naceri, so Brick Mansions boasts the kind of equally effective and entertaining action writing that the two have built their careers on.
Walker and Belle share an instant, easygoing chemistry that allows every one-liner to land squarely on target and every traded glance to resonate with synchronous humor and suspense. Their interplay is one of a few ways in which Brick Mansions actually improves over the original. Besson and Naceri inject Brick Mansions‘ action-heavy script with a winking self-awareness, from Walker’s giddy incredulity at his continued survival to RZA dropping lines like, “Where I come from, cash rules everything around me.” (That’s not the only shout-out in Brick Mansions, though a number of the ones directed at Walker are more than a little eerie in the wake of his sudden death.)
The screenplay also supplies a supremely satisfying amount of humor outside of the two leads, with Tremaine and his henchmen carrying out some hilarious back-and-forths. Action thrillers can rarely boast strong humor, but the audience in my screening spent about as much time laughing out loud at Brick Mansions‘ dialogue as they did gaping in amazement at its stunts. There’s also droll, on-point social commentary to be found here; the actions of the Detroit politicians who send Damien into Brick Mansions must particularly feel like a hard (if somewhat warranted) slap in the face to the troubled city’s current officials. Note to Mayor Mike Duggan: If filmmakers are setting a dystopian actioner in your city, and it doesn’t look all that different, something’s not right.
As with most movies of this ilk, the performances are crucial. Luckily, Walker is better than ever as Damien, delivering every line with conviction and nimbly handling the role’s intensely physical aspects. Sure, it’s a rush to see the actor back behind the wheel of a sports car, fast and furious as always, but the amount of effort Walker put into improving his fighting skills is what really impresses. That he can almost hold his own against Belle, credited with the invention of parkour, is a testament to Walker’s work.
Playing essentially the same role he broke out with back in 2004, Belle doesn’t appear to have aged a day. He’s still a wonder to watch, moving his body with the grace of an Olympic gymnast and the force of an MMA fighter, especially in the terrific opening sequence (almost a shot-for-shot redo of the original’s intro). Belle also reasserts the fact that he knows his character inside out, nailing every emotional nuance. It’s one thing to be a great stuntman and quite another to be a great actor; Belle is both at once.
Finally, rapper-turned-actor RZA surprises with his charismatic portrayal of Tremaine as a criminal with a code, a common thug with delusions of grandeur. He supplies the requisite menace, but one gets a sense that there’s a broad grin hiding just beneath Tremaine’s deadly glare. The character also delivers most of Brick Mansions‘ messages about poverty and social inequality with a bluntness that recalls Kanye West’s comments during A Concert for Hurricane Relief about the Bush adminstration, and as such, Tremaine becomes something of an antihero – he may be a murdering drug dealer, but at least he’s the devil we know, not the one behind a shiny desk deciding the fates of all those who bring home smaller paychecks. Expect the actor to become very in-demand after this role.
As these characters intersect in violent and sometimes unexpected ways (to those who haven’t seen the original, at least), Brick Mansions proves to be a highly entertaining action thriller. The final 15 minutes don’t pack quite as potent a punch as those that came before, but nothing derails the proceedings or takes away from the heady thrills of watching Walker and Belle simultaneously defy physics and formula.
I’m really going to miss seeing Walker at the movies. However, if Brick Mansions is to serve as his final work, it’s relieving, at least, to know that that it’s his best, and an appropriately sensational capstone to a career built on pulse-pounding, jaw-dropping action spectaculars. Goodbye, Mr. Walker, and thank you. I loved every moment, and after watching Brick Mansions, I know that you did too.
An adrenaline-soaked thrill ride with a delicious sting in the tail, Brick Mansions is superior action entertainment and a fittingly spectacular send-off for Paul Walker.