Vapid "Brick Mansions" Fit To Be Condemned

“Brick Mansions” is a gloomy experience for a myriad of reasons, the most significant being its place as Paul Walker’s penultimate film. When the actor died unexpectedly last year, the public’s reaction was curious. Many mourned him as a famous person who seemed nice, rather than someone who was talented and successful. He was, in fact, all of the above, his easy onscreen charisma elevating countless films, from horror-thriller “Joy Ride” to the long-running “Fast & Furious” series. Unfortunately, “Brick Mansions” – a remake of French action film “District B13” – is an unqualified dud, its voracious stupidity immune to Walker’s boyish charm. It’s a low point in the late actor’s filmography, making for a doubly dreary experience that depresses across the board.

It’s the kind of film that proudly calls on its characters to repeat its own clumsy title – “Brick Mansions,” in case you’ve already forgotten – over and over again, a title referring to a section of low-income housing in urban Detroit. Cordoned off from surrounding neighborhoods, the “mansions” have been taken over by a misanthropic crime lord, Tremaine (Wu-Tang Clan rapper RZA), with plans to wipe Detroit off the map. An undercover cop, Damien (Walker), reluctantly partners with an ex-con, Lino (French actor David Belle), to stop Tremaine. Lots of parkour (a fast-paced, gymnastic style of running and jumping) ensues.

As one of the fathers of parkour and star of the original “District B13,” Belle is eminently qualified to translate the material for American audiences. But the filmmakers don’t trust him to deliver intelligible dialogue, making the insane decision to scrap all of it and replace it, poorly, in post-production. The result is a co-lead character whose mouth is often out of sync with his dialogue, an absurd, unacceptable hitch for a $30 million movie. Unsurprisingly, it does Walker no favors, as most of his screen time is spent bouncing off a performance that we never get to hear. Muddled dialogue from Belle would have been far preferable to the ADR (automated dialogue replacement) debacle that’s on display here.

If the narrative was at all engaging these issues might not be deal breakers, but the screenplay – credited to original scribes Luc Besson and Bibi Naceri – plays like the French version run through Google translate. It’s all exposition, poorly worded, and seemingly written around specific action beats – action scene, action scene, “characters speak here,” action scene. None of the stunts are particularly impressive, but it’s a movie that’s at least five years late to the party. Parkour has never been overly popular in the US and it’s well beyond its mid-2000s peak. Throw in a score that sounds like Def Leppard remixed badly and “Brick Mansions” impressively misses its sell-by date.

At least RZA is having fun, knowingly chewing scenery with enough self-awareness to recognize that he’s in a bad movie. If the film does anything worthwhile, it’s in giving the musician one of his meatiest roles to date, one that goes hilariously off the rails in the pic’s latter stages. If only “Brick Mansions” had the foresight to go for broke in its early going, it might have been salvageable as a goofy actioner. But in taking the self-serious route, it’s a total loss, one made even less palatable by offscreen tragedy. One can only hope that Paul Walker’s final film – the forthcoming “Fast & Furious 7” will be a much more fitting send-off.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: April 25, 2014
Studio: Relativity Media
Director: Camille Delamarre
Screenwriter: Luc Besson, Bibi Naceri
Starring: Paul Walker, David Belle, RZA, Catalina Denis, Carlo Rota
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for frenetic gunplay, violence and action throughout, language, sexual menace and drug material)