I’m not gonna lie, it’s still tough watching Paul Walker repeatedly crash cars into walls. Brick Mansions was the last film the actor completed before his tragic death, and it’s another variation on his usual type: The Undercover Cop With Something to Prove Who Likes to Drive. The film may be set inside a massive housing complex, but it still finds plenty of opportunities to get Walker behind the wheel, where he always seemed most comfortable. Those scenes are meant to be fun, exciting, maybe even a little ironic, but right now, they just make you queasy and sad.
That feeling, one assumes, will dissipate over the years. But the rest of Brick Mansions also feels like a miscalculation. As an American remake of the 2004 French film District B13, it should be wilder, funnier, nuttier. B13 was a dystopian crime thriller partly designed to showcase Parkour, the act of swiftly and acrobatically moving through an urban environment using things like walls and windows and fire escapes and roofs and chimneys and whatnot as your playthings. That film co-starred one of Parkour’s founders, David Belle, who reprises his part in Brick Mansions as well, playing Lino, an ex-con and urban crusader who lives in the titular futuristic wasteland, a blighted section of Detroit that has been blocked off from the rest of the city with a 40-foot wall. (The year is 2018, and the city’s powers that be have abandoned the denizens of Brick Mansions to wallow in their own crime and filth.) In trying to rid the hood of drugs, however, Lino has crossed a local drug kingpin, Tremaine Alexander (RZA), who kidnaps his girlfriend (Catalina Denis) in return. As it happens, Tremaine has also acquired a neutron bomb and a small Russian missile, and has pointed them at downtown Detroit. That brings cop Damien Collier (Walker) into the mix: He wants to connect with Lino and use him to get into Brick Mansions and find his way to Tremaine. It’s a ridiculous plot, but a promising one; the French film had roughly the same premise.
District B13 worked thanks to its creative, freewheeling sense of fun. Parkour was a stunning combination of agility, speed, and gravity-defying elegance, and the film wisely highlighted the fact that it was real, not relying on superhero CGI or martial arts wire-fu. But Brick Mansions, right from the get-go, utilizes extremely quick cuts and high shutter speed trickery, the kinds of effects filmmakers often use to artificially ratchet up action in their films. (Compare for yourselves: Here’s a clip from District B13, and here’s a shorter clip of the same basic scene from Brick Mansions, featuring the same actor.) The result drains the Parkour of both grace and novelty; it becomes just another stunt, nothing more and nothing less. There’s precious little Parkour in this putative Parkour movie.
Some elements work better than others. Belle, I’m afraid, is a bit of a wash — physically gifted yet hopelessly bland. But Walker is his reliable self as the street-tough, white-bread cop. His grandfather lives in an actual mansion; that our hero came from money but chose the streets offers an intriguing bit of character shading. As the head villain, RZA gets to play with an interesting contradiction as well: He is the kind of over-the-top bad guy who will randomly shoot someone to make a point, but he also gets to have his reasons, with a seemingly endless supply of earnest, often hilarious self-justifying lines. (On his men playing video games: “When they’re not out cappin’ niggas in the streets, they’re in here cappin ‘em on a TV screen. I give them jobs so they can feed their families.”) If only the movie could have matched his flamboyance. But Brick Mansions is slow and confused when it should be fast and exuberant, and what was a spirited, inventive French action movie becomes a Hollywood-ized slog.