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Non-Review Review: Brick Mansions

Brick Mansions is an incredibly stupid film. It’s a movie that doesn’t make any real sense. It hinges on a series of set-ups and reversals that don’t even hold together while watching the movie. Anybody expecting an action movie that makes any semblance of sense is probably best advised to look elsewhere. And yet, despite this, there’s a point where the sheer unrelenting absurdity of Brick Mansions becomes fun in a grindhouse “this is probably great fun at 2am” sort of way.

At its heart, Brick Mansions feels like a throwback to a very particular style of eighties science-fiction cinema. It’s an action movie with the faintest trace of a social conscience that really exists just to justify ridiculous plot developments and excuse a central story that makes absolutely no sense. Lacking the awareness or intelligence that defined the best of the socially-conscious eighties science-fiction action films, Brick Mansions feels a lot like the kind of guilty pleasure that eats up the airwaves at the most unsocial broadcast hours.

You don't need that to make out the plot holes...

You don’t need that to make out the plot holes…

It’s hard to exaggerate precisely how little sense Brick Mansions makes. Cataloguing the logical and narrative holes in the story would take more time than watching the film itself. This is a movie that hinges on the idea that detonating a neutron bomb in the heart of a densely populated city is a practical means of urban gentrification. And that apparently such a bomb cannot be set remotely, but requires sending a police officer in after it in order to arm it and detonate it.

Then again, Brick Mansions is a movie where the bad guy suddenly has an old Russian rocket, because… well, what’s the point of a nuetron bomb if you can’t launch it at an opponent? That’s to say nothing of plot contortions that try to gloss over the fact that one of the primary characters is a murdering drug dealer in order to give the film something approaching a happy ending. (Never mind that another of our leads killed an army officer in cold blood towards the start of the film.)

Dropping a bombshell...

Dropping a bombshell…

This doesn’t even account for the bizarro logic that powers the movie’s central plot. The bad guys apparently found an unattended nuclear bomb and just brought it home with them. Our heroes figure out that everything is not on the level because the vehicle housing the bomb has not been damaged by a harpoon; never mind that the harpoon only appeared in flashback and wasn’t mentioned (and seems a bizarre detail to mention) in the story recounted to wither of our leads. It’s only one step shy of a detective solving the case by reading the script.

Brick Mansions is a movie that works reasonably well if you try not to think about it too much. In many respects, it’s an affectionate homage to cheesy eighties science-fiction blockbusters, proposing a grim future where a section of Detroit has been walled off by the government and completely forgotten about. Given the fact that Detroit is a community more impoverished than ever – even during the notoriously harsh eighties – it feels somewhat appropriate for cinema to circle back to a dystopian Detroit in movies like Brick Mansions and Only Lovers Left Alive.

Bricking it...

Bricking it…

Brick Mansions offers the most rudimentary sort of social commentary. You can typically identify how evil the villains are by how professional they appear. Bad drug lords are those with ambiguously British accents who studied at “a business college, a very expensive business college.” In contrast, the redeemable drug lords are those who talk about mom’s cooking and wax lyrical about how unfair the system has treated them.

The movie opens with a bunch of rich suited white guys talking about urban renewal in a way that makes it clear they plan to wipe out a socially disadvantaged neighbourhood that they’ve already abandoned. It’s hard to tell whether Brick Mansions is earnestly attempting social commentary about the mismanagement and neglect of these sorts of communities, or whether it’s simply including it as a wry nod towards the occasionally awkward social consciousness that defined eighties science-fiction.

The man with the golden gun...

The man with the golden gun…

To be fair, Brick Mansions plays best when it aims for irony. Shots of former gangsters and drug dealers working to rebuild the community as a form of social redemption are so far over the top that they cross the line into absurd comedy. The Mayor of Detroit has an advisor named Tom Berenger, just in case you thought that the eighties action movie vibes were a coincidence. There are moments of absurd and ridiculous brilliance scattered throughout the film, mostly when it swings for the fences.

Local drug lord Tremaine Alexander offers many words of wisdom over the course of the film. At one point, he astutely observes that “sometimes you don’t gotta be a rocket scientist, you just gotta have a rocket.” It’s a sentiment that is a true today as it ever was. It ranks proudly with other wry cinematic observations, like those that warn listeners of the peril of trying to ice-skate up a hill.

Riding shotgun...

Riding shotgun…

There are moments when the movie’s political satire almost seems to hit the mark. Confronted with a $300m ransom demand for the neutron warhead, the Mayor sighs. “It’s not in the budget,” he offers, as if imagining the paperwork required to push that through. When the local authorities reveal that the warhead has been hijacked – with nobody wondering why a neutron bomb would be travelling through a walled-off section of Detroit in the first place – they object to the use of the term “nuclear bomb.” One of the Mayor’s advisors protests, “We prefer the word device. Bomb is a very loaded term.”

There is a giddy thrill to all this, and while first time director Camille Delamarre goes just a little bit overboard with the editing, there is an enjoyable rhythm to the film. We get parkour fight sequences, explosions, some cheesy visual gags and all manner of guilt pleasures to help tide the film over. The fact that the script is held together by little more than duct tape and the best wishes of the director almost doesn’t matter as long as the thing keeps moving.

Just when you were starting to feel nostalgic about exploitation...

Just when you were starting to feel nostalgic about exploitation…

Unfortunately, Brick Mansions has carried over some of the more unfortunate tendencies of the cheesy eighties science-fiction films that it seeks to emulate. In particular, there’s a rather homophobic subplot involving the movie’s two major female characters. The girlfriend of one of the heroes is kidnapped (yes, she does end up tied to the bomb), but she attracts the attention of the villain’s main henchwoman.

While this is a pragmatic decision to avoid any unnecessary male-on-female violence, which remains taboo in mainstream action films due to its connotations, Brick Mansions decides to add a weird sexual element to the interactions between the two female characters. In essence, this reduces Rayzah to a stock psychopathic lesbian – one of the more dated and homophobic character archetypes that populate these sorts of films. It is an unfortunately dated element, and one that spoils and undermines a lot of the nostalgic charm that powers Brick Mansions.

Brick Mansions is an incredibly silly film that makes absolutely no sense on just about any level. There are points when it’s easy enough to get swept up in the cheesy throwback elements, but not enough that one ever loses sight of the (sizeable) flaws. The movie is hampered by a lack of thought and consideration, and feels like it could have been a much smarter dumb movie.

2 Responses

  1. Ever see the original French action film, District B13, Darren? BM (now there is a title) is the remake of that. Entertaining 2004 film that helped start the showcase of Parkour. Little else though.

    • Haven’t seen the original, I’m afraid to say. Although it sounds quite like this – perfect 2am viewing, not really that good otherwise.

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