Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them
This time, we’re going to use every bit of the stupid buffalo
-attributed to Penny Arcade
Brick Mansions is as idiotic a movie as I have ever seen. The plot makes no sense whatsoever, and the characters’ motivations and actions are similarly incomprehensible. It has, and earns, a 27% positive score on Rottentomatoes.com. And none of that matters at all. I saw it with my Dad yesterday, and we had a blast. It’s jaw-dropping, amazing, breathtaking. Ignore the plot, forget the story; this is David Belle’s American film debut.
In fact, there’s one movie I compare it to more than any other–and the similarities between these films is uncanny–Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx (1995). That was the break-through movie for Chan, his first American film after years of Chinese superstardom. Here’s from Roger Ebert’s famous review of that film:
Any attempt to defend this movie on rational grounds is futile. Don’t tell me about the plot and the dialogue. Don’t dwell on the acting. The whole point is Jackie Chan – and, like Astaire and Rogers, he does what he does better than anybody.
In Rumble in the Bronx, the bad guys Jackie’s been fighting against for the first half of the movie become, with no explanation whatever, his best friends in the last half of it. This also happens in Brick Mansions. In Rumble, tattooed ghetto hoods are pretty bad, but the guys in suits are the really bad guys; same as in Brick Mansions. Jackie, in Rumble, has one stunt where he jumps off a roof through a tiny window in the next building; David Belle reprises it in Mansions. But both movies take your breath away with the ingenuity and physical amazingness of the stunts. For Jackie Chan, it was martial arts. For David Belle, it’s parkour.
The biggest difference between the films is this: Jackie Chan starred in Rumble, while Mansions is a buddy movie, with Belle playing Paul Walker’s sidekick.
This makes it, ostensibly, a Paul Walker movie. And of course, watching a Paul Walker movie nowadays is pretty bittersweet. Walker died in an auto accident in November, after starring in the Fast and the Furious movies. And Walker was, by all accounts, an agreeable and decent young man, giving millions to charity. His performance in this isn’t anything special, but he holds the flick together. Brick Mansions also includes incredible stunt driving sequences (Walker’s action-flick forte), as well as some creditable fight scenes. He’s fine in this. And David Belle is really only astonishing in his chase scenes and fight scenes and stunts. He’s not a terrifically charismatic screen presence (unlike Jackie Chan). But those Belle parkour sequences are so good, they make the entire movie. (And I think he’s bare-chested throughout so we can be sure he’s not wired up to anything).
The premise of the movie is that the Brick Mansions section of Detroit, once home to the city’s rich folks, has become the worst slum in the city, home only to drug lords, like Tremaine (played by the rapper RZA). RZA owns the drug trade, as it happens, and commands an immense army of nasties, most prominently Rayzah (Ayishah Issa), a leather-wearing dominatrix, an smiling enforcer K2 (played by the French-Canadian actor Gouchy Boy), and a mountainous thug with the character name (I kid you not) Yeti, played by former pro wrestler Robert Maillet. Paul Walker plays detective Damien Collier, the one honest cop in Detroit. But to infiltrate Brick Mansions, he needs a criminal sidekick Lino; hence David Belle.
So Damien and Lino have to go into this walled-off slum, to capture Tremaine, and also to defuse a big bomb that’s about to do some swift and radical slum clearance. And of course, they carefully employ the usual plan favored in Idiot Action Flicks, the one where they walk in the front door and beat everyone up, counting on the several thousands rounds being fired at them by various baddies all missing.
I’m not sure SPOILER ALERTS matter in movies this foolishly plotted, but skip this paragraph if you want to experience the full catharsis provided by this plot’s measure of pity and fear. Trumaine, despite having shot innocent people for no reason earlier, suddenly transforms becomes the Conscience of the Movie in its last act. And the movie offers this ray of hope to poor, beleaguered Detroit–they should just make their leading drug kingpin their mayor. That’d work! And that’s by no means the stupidest part of the ‘plot’.
Lino has a girlfriend, Lola (Catalina Denis), who gets captured by Tremaine and held captive and lesbianly threatened by Rayzah. (And she and Rayzah of them have conversations! Full of threats, back and forth! Two women, talking! Right before one of them pushes the other one off the roof! It passes the Bechdel test!!!). And Rayzah uses a razor to cut off the two top buttons of Lola’s blouse, for no reason but this: so that for the rest of the movie, that blouse will have two fewer buttons. As Lola’s being captured, surrendered to Tremaine by a corrupt police captain, Lino kills the jerk who turned her over. When Damien/Paul Walker is assigned to work with Lino, we’re told that he is in federal prison for that murder. Cut back to Lola, who is still tied up with the same rope as was used when she was captured, and still wearing the same outfit (missing the same two buttons). So: two possibilities. Either Lino was indicted, tried, convicted and sentenced in about three hours. Or Lola has been held by Tremaine for however number of months or years it would actually take to try and convict Lino, without her ever having been untied or allowed to change her clothes or brush her hair.
Or we’re just not supposed to notice massive inconsistencies in the movie’s time frame. Because what matters in these things isn’t coherence or intelligibility. What matters is a) Lola’s costume missing two buttons, b) Damien being assigned to work with a (horrors!) criminal, c) the subsequent establishment of a fun buddy dynamic between the movie’s two stars, and d) suitably glowering footage of evil Tremaine and eviler Rayzah. Those objectives accomplished, stuff like the plot making sense don’t matter.
Because the point of the movie are chases and stunts and fight scenes. And those are all quite spectacular. Belle has this one escape scene in which he runs up walls, climbs poles, leaps off roofs, vaults over various baddies, and kicks people in the face, all done with the camera far enough away for us to really see the stunts, and edited to look like one continuous sequence. It’s really spectacular stuff. And it makes the movie worth watching. While the film is certainly stupid, it’s not inconsequential. David Belle is one of the founders of parkour, and he’s amazing.
We don’t always (or even often) go to movies for enlightenment, for inspiration, for art. Or even for them to make sense. A lot of the time we go to movies to have fun. And this movie is fun. My Dad and I sat in the theater with another guy, a total stranger, and afterwards, we were dumbfounded at what we’d watched. And the other guy just shook his head. “Wow,” he said. “Wow.”