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Banlieue 13: Bust Out the Biceps

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Paris, 2010. The French government, plum out of ideas about what to do with its crime-ridden housing projects, has surrounded them with a high concrete wall topped by razor wire. Drugs have taken over the ghetto. Except for one apartment block, where wiry Leïto is fighting to keep the nasty dudes at bay — even if it means stealing a load of cocaine and washing it down the tub.

That's when la merde really hits the fan. Because the thugs, easily spotted by their penchant for corny jokes and tacky jewelry, are miffed. And Leïto isn't easily caught. He practices the gravity-defying martial art of parkour, which enables him to vault over walls, leap between rooftops and shimmy up poles — all, apparently, without the benefits of strings or CGI or even mutant powers. Think Jackie Chan flexing his moves up and down a 20-story building. Now, LAist finds good car chase scenes amusing and rather handy for tips on how to get east of the 405 at 5:35 p.m. But we have to admit, it was really fun to see a film where the first big chase scene is on foot. It even made some of the heavy-handed elements of the plotline sort of digestible. Get this: Leïto is forced to partner with an idealistic cop, played by martial-arts extraordinaire Cyril Raffaelli. They discover that, even though they're from different worlds, they're both fighting for the same values! And there's a bomb — and it's about to explode!

But just before you start groaning, they're off again, cop and criminal bounding over vertical obstacles. In fact, parkour may really be the star of this newish film by Luc Besson, the French director and producer perhaps best known to U.S. audiences for his Bruce Willis/Milla Jovovich sci-fi flick The Fifth Element. Actor David Belle (Leïto) invented the sport, which he modeled after a French military training excercise called parcours du combattant. It seeks to find the most efficient, and creative, way of getting from point A to B — walls be damned. Belle and a band of fellow practioners called the Yamikasi took France and then England by storm over the last few years, thanks in large part to some hair-raising commercials. Parkour has even made its way to our Western shores via emailed video clips of Belle, spawning clubs, meet-ups and the slightly obsessed. One favorite local spot? The roofs of Cal State Northridge.

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Visual arts non-profit Genart held an advance screening of Banlieue 13 Wednesday night. An English version called District 13 is slated for U.S. release in June. You'll never look at another concrete wall the same way again.