The Raid 2 casts a huge shadow no matter what the scale is of the movie it’s being juxtaposed with, but comparatively speaking, Brick Mansions is a case study in what not to do with action. Coming just weeks after its predecessor’s release, and trying to tap into the same adrenaline-addicted, left-field audience as Gareth Evans’, its shortcomings are many – choreography, cinematography and storytelling all fall prey to former editor Camille Delamarre’s overstimulated director’s eye. But as a clumsy, decade-late attempt to introduce parkour to America, Brick Mansions is just plain lame, the kind of action movie that might have been considered exceptional were it released straight to VHS during the ’90s, but in all subsequent contexts (especially in the present era), it qualifies as completely incompetent.
The late Paul Walker (Fast & Furious 6) plays Damien, an undercover cop whose tenacity and persistence has helped apprehend some of the biggest criminals in 2018 Detroit. But when the city’s mayor (Bruce Ramsay) discovers that a military convoy carrying an armed nuclear weapon through Brick Mansions was intercepted by drug lord Tremaine (RZA), Damien gets paired with a cop killer named Lino (David Belle) and assigned to infiltrate the fortress-like compound. But the two men have other things on their minds than the ticking time bomb they must defuse: Damien is determined to bring down Tremaine for the murder of his father, while Lino wants to rescue his estranged girlfriend Lola (Catalina Denis), who has been kidnapped.
Although they successfully gain access to Tremaine’s stronghold, they soon learn that he has strapped the bomb to a missile and plans to send it straight into the heart of downtown Detroit. But as Damien and Lino try to fight their way through Tremaine’s henchmen to disarm the bomb, they quickly begin to realize that they are merely pawns in the real battle, between the poverty-stricken inhabitants of Brick Mansions and the wealthy landowners outside its walls.
First-time feature director Delamarre’s credits include editing duties on Transporter 3, Colombiana and Taken 2, and whatever aptitude he showed in those films for staging action is completely absent in Brick Mansions. Parkour is singularly reliant on skill and dexterity, and benefits most as a tool for entertainment when, well, the audience can actually see it. But from the first action scene to the last, Delamarre creates montages so finely-chopped that it’s impossible to tell who’s doing what, to whom, and where.
Written by Luc Besson, who also concocted the original District B13, the film barely makes sense even without the geographic jumbling of its set pieces. Damien and Lino get in and out of trouble at such regular intervals that they seem undaunted by the odds, or stakes, of any given plan of action. After staging a daring rescue of Lola, for example, Lino holds Tremaine at gunpoint as an entire army aims its weapons at him, but instead of bargaining for an escape route, he inexplicably stands on principle and insists that the drug lord retire from crime and stop selling to the inhabitants of Brick Mansions. Meanwhile, Damien “recruits” his partner by breaking him out of jail, fighting with him, feebly brokering a truce, and then dropping a homing device in Lino’s pocket. While there would be little to take seriously even if any of these turns were played at a believable pitch, its cardboard conflict is rendered with so much melodrama the only reaction it elicits is a laugh stifled to keep from distracting neighboring viewers.
As likeable a presence as Walker had, he was a largely one-dimensional actor, and he lends the same amount of post-Keanu flatness to Damien that he did to Brian in the Fast and the Furious movies. He’s used here almost as a sort of meta-counterpoint to Belle’s parkour pedigree, giving him some action to participate in but mostly showcasing his decidedly more extensive experience behind the wheel. Belle, as suggested above, barely gets to advertise his physical skills, which unfortunately forces attention onto his “acting,” a loose euphemism for the repeated removal of his shirt and line readings I’m not sure weren’t literally all dubbed over for purposes of clarification.
As Tremaine, meanwhile, RZA not only manages to give the most engaging performance, but creates the most reasonable character in the film. Notwithstanding the drug lord’s penchant for making goofy, threatening metaphors while wielding a cleaver, his rationale for his actions makes more sense than anyone else’s, and the rapper lends him charm and humanity that is, well, at least redemptive enough to distract the rest of the characters from the fact that a former crime lord just might be a plausible mayoral candidate in a post-Brick Mansions world.
Although Besson has managed to create a sort of cottage industry with these low-hanging-fruit action movies, Delamarre is ultimately responsible for the collective ineffectiveness of this movie. There’s honestly no reason other than sheer incompetence to cut up action scenes with such schizophrenic inattention to choreography that feels more intense the more of it audiences see. A thoroughly mediocre effort that pays off disappointingly as a thriller, a thrill ride, or even a demonstration of a unique and highly appealing form of athleticism, Brick Mansions is executed about as skillfully as throwing as a brick through a windshield, and leaves behind the same impact – a big, empty, disappointing hole.
Brick Mansions opens today nationwide.