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MOVIE REVIEW

'District' explodes, by leaps and bounds

It's not my preferred way to go, but were I to die chasing a shirtless thug in a French action movie, I'd want to do it with all my might, like the anonymous goons in ``District B13." When a body plummets down a stairwell or is hurled against a slot machine, it does so with conviction. Like its stunt work, the movie is both ridiculously hyperactive and a muscular feat of absolute confidence. I don't expect to have a more adrenalizing time at the movies this summer.

Directed by Pierre Morel and co-written by Luc Besson, ``District B13" comes on as the latest glorification of thug life. The year is 2010 and the setting is B13, a vast Brutalist slum on the outskirts of Paris (the high-rise projects in France are called ``cités"), where the lithe, tattooed, and serious Leito (David Belle) is on the run from a drug dealer looking for his suitcase full of cocaine. The dealer (Tony D'Amario) is a hill of a man, rightly named K2. He's the sort of fellow who sends his underlings scrambling up the stairs after Leito while he takes the elevator.

The camerawork in these sequences is jumpy. It follows a joint flicked down the garbage chute and climbs over junkies clogging the housing project corridors. We get it: Morel digs scuzz. But on the run, the picture makes a sudden, jaw-dropping announcement. The cats chasing Leito may be fast, but Leito is no mortal mouse. He's a practitioner of parkour , a French street sport that combines speed and acrobatics in an explosive and graceful way. It looks spectacular when timed with pulsing hip-hoppy electronica by laser-sharp editing. The sport is also a practical exercise -- perfect for running from the cops, say. But like South Central's krump craze or British grime, parkour's urban desperation explodes into kinetic art. It's Cirque du Cité.

Without any apparent visual assistance, Leito leaps off rooftops and sails, feet first, through a transom window. I would have gasped at that last stunt, but before I could muster the air, Morel and his crew had moved on to the next trick, which is two seconds away. Belle helped create parkour, and watching him climb along walls and scurry down the sides of buildings, you might be tempted to alert the makers of ``X-Men." At the very least, he makes Spider-Man look like a potato bug. Eventually, Leito is nabbed and jailed, but it's only to give him a rest.

While he takes a breather, we're introduced to Damien (Cyril Raffaelli), an equally compact blond, with a receding hairline. After months of being deep undercover -- his wig, attitude, and flashy duds have earned him a spot as a thug's main henchman -- he takes part in one of the more hilarious crime busts I've seen. (One of the baddies is like Al Pacino's Scarface doing Pacino's Richard III: grotesquely funny.) When the job goes wrong, Damien is forced to reveal that he, too, can hurt people with ruthless grace.

That the screenwriters cook up a reason for the punk and the cop to team up, albeit with extreme reluctance, should go without saying. But the chefs are inspired. A powerful rocket has fallen into the hands of B13's drug lords. It could obliterate the entire housing complex, and Damien has 24 hours to enter the complex and defuse it. Obviously, Leito is the only man who can get him near it. This pairing produces one intense debate (who is the law for, anyway?), two hilarious observations (for example, ``Your moves reek of cop school!"), and a few occasions for neck-breaking pas de deux.

Raffaelli is the film's fight choreographer (he was trained in the circus and also did the eye-popping stunts in the first ``Transporter" film), and he has saved some of the most interesting sequences for his work with Belle. They have physical chemistry that's fraternal (like the Nicholas Brothers) and vaguely sexual (like Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor).

But fancy feet aside, ``District B13" is a movie of its moment. The housing project here is compared by one character to Baghdad, but it could double as Beirut or the South Bronx. The checkpoints at the entrance and the soldiers guarding them give the place a West Bank feel. As a metaphor for new-school government policy regarding the poor, the film's last act is beyond absurd -- but not really when you listen closely to how, during last year's riots in France, the muckety-mucks absolved themselves from any responsibility for the catastrophe.

Remarkably, the film keeps a lid on its anger over the cités until the finale, which manages to shake its fists at the government in a manner that produces the thrill not only of catharsis but of truth. Suddenly, the film's generic title seems appropriate. B13 could be anywhere.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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