By Greg Popil
It’s unnecessarily cynical to buy into the old saying that death, for an entertainer, is a good career move, but it’s also hard to deny that an actor’s posthumous work will always be more closely examined, and any allusions to their death that much more potent. Brandon Lee’s untimely passing on the set of “The Crow” made the entire film’s love-from-beyond-the-grave motif infinitely more poignant, and while Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker in “The Dark Knight” was always going to be a twisted masterpiece, it was impossible to ignore the sick feeling derived from the scene where he shows up in a body bag. So it’s an understandable impulse to search Paul Walker’s final completed performance in “Brick Mansions” for sigils of his untimely death. That it is hard to find any is probably as fitting a tribute to his legacy as one could hope to find.
Walker stars as Damien Collier, a cop in the not-too-distant future of Detroit. Collier is a loose cannon that plays by his own rules (but, say it with me now, he gets results, damnit!) who is forced to team up with a local vigilante (David Belle, star of the original French version of this movie which I have not seen) to infiltrate the titular housing project. Said project has been deemed so dangerous that it has become a walled-off demilitarized zone, run by charismatic drug lord Tremaine (RZA), who rules the area with an iron fist. And if this doesn’t already sound like a miniaturized, caffeinated version of “Escape from New York,” Tremaine has stolen an armed nuclear weapon that our heroes must deactivate within 12 hours.
There‘s no getting around that the entire movie is pretty dumb, but at a fleet 85 minutes director Camille Delamarre throws enough action onto the screen,= and keeps the dialogue to a minimum, so that the plot becomes an afterthought. It also helps that, unlike the dismal “Need For Speed” or the Transformers movies, Luc Besson’s script manages to keep things light without resorting to cringe-worthy attempts at comedy. The ridiculous scenario is amusing, but not to the people actually involved in it, and that is an important distinction.
The only demerit of the short running time is the movie’s late left turn into social commentary. “Mansions’” ad campaign focused, rather uncomfortably, on the premise of two white cops going into a minority-filled ghetto and trying to clean house. Aside from an unfortunately placed early scene that gives away the true nature of evil in future Detroit (hint: when you see a boardroom full of white males clinking champagne glasses, beware), the movie seems to follow suit, until a late twist attempts to subvert this dynamic. While not a deal-breaker for the movie, the sudden changes in alliances have no room to breathe and are not organically developed, making it a non-starter of a subplot (although it does lead to a poster in the last scene that is the film’s best sight gag).
The action sequences are a lot of fun as well. Belle does most of the heavy lifting in that department, starting with a great opening sequence in which he acts like a French Jackie Chan, simultaneously fighting and running away from dozens of Tremaine’s goons. The PG-13 rating hurts the impact of the blows (no one should crash through a car windshield and slide across 10 feet of concrete and only have a few scratches to show for it), and most of the bad guys suffer from Stormtrooper syndrome whenever they handle guns, but the majority of the action focuses around wire/stunt work with a minimum of CGI, and Delamarre smartly limits Walker to traditional fistfights while Belle springboards around the sets like Bugs Bunny on speed.
Early on in the movie, a character asks Collier if he thinks he can handle a rough assignment. His facial expression unchanged, he shrugs and simply replies “I’ll handle what needs handling.” If one was combing through the movie for a fitting epitaph for Paul Walker, that would be it. Never a dynamic or charismatic actor, but also never offensively awful, Walker found a smart niche as a cinematic cipher, a grimly determined protagonist that could handle the straight-ahead mechanics of a movie’s plot, while letting the spotlight shine on the more colorful characters surrounding him. Were he a musician, he would be a John Paul Jones-style bassist, handling the framework for others to grab the glory. Appropriately, Walker’s final role will be in the seventh “Fast and Furious” movie, the series where Walker honed this particular niche. I do not know what the plot of that movie will be, but Walker will doubtlessly handle what needs handling.