Sometime around 1998, Luc Besson kind of stopped being a filmmaker and turned into a brand name. It was that year that he wrote and produced Taxi, the first significant and successful "Luc Besson film" that he didn't also direct. Now he writes three or four films a year, and produces several more, making him one of the most prolific auteurs in history.

And no mistake, he's an auteur: even if he doesn't direct these films, they bear an unmistakable mark. A Luc Besson film involves guns, drugs, cartoonish action, and above all kinesis. It must never stop moving, even in the quiet moments having the camera spin around or through the set, or have the actors themselves dart back and forth like ritalin-deprived schoolchildren.

Say what you will about Besson (and I've said a lot of it), he knows how to deliver the goods. So it comes as no surprise that 2004's Besson-scripted, Pierre Morel-directed Banlieue 13 (newly released to this country with the unavoidably imprecise title District B13) opens with a feverish, exciting moment of pure energy. In fact, the very first shot is as energetic and thrilling as anything else in theaters this year. After a title card tells us that the Paris police walled off the most dangerous parts of the ghetto in 2010, we open on that very wall, swooping down and then back up and over, rushing madly through the wasteland of Banlieue 13, sweeping around cars and bodies, before plunging into a building, where the shot continues by darting through doors, behind furniture, into an electrical socket, through cables, and finally into a locked apartment via its peephole. Clearly, this was shot in several pieces and stitched together with a computer, but it happens at such a breakneck pace above a pounding techno soundtrack that you just can't think about that.

The camera ends in front of Leito (David Belle), a well-muscled young man who is busily emptying packets of heroin into his sink. Meanwhile, some gang members led by the bulky K2 (Tony D'Amario) break into his building to stop him. Along the way they kill a number of guards in a very snarky French gangster sort of way, and upon reaching Leito, a chase begins. And oh, such a chase! Belle is not an actor (though he can act tolerably well) but a martial artist, and he is extremely good at it. And so he climbs and swings and runs across every surface or object between his apartment and the ground seven stories below. It is a wonderful sequence, more than a little evocative of Ong-Bak (produced by...Luc Besson), and shot and directed with reckless speed. Slow-motion has very few good uses, but Morel finds one: showing a fast-moving human body doing extraordinary things slowly enough that we can appreciate them.

And then the sequence ends and the movie just kind of...stops. I certainly won't say it gets boring, because that's not it at all. But here, twelve minutes in, the film has played its only card. It's not that this is the best setpiece, so much as this is the only setpiece. And horribly, a damn plot comes in right about now: Leito stole the heorin from the ee-vil Taha (co-writer Bibi Naceri), so Taha kidnaps Leito's sister Lola (Dany Verissmo), and make sure Leito gets unjustly imprisoned...

...and six months later we follow undercover cop Damien (CyrilRaffaeli), in the bust of a nasty Franco-Spanish gang that provides a reasonably exciting gunfight that is well and truly the last interesting part of the film. From here it's just "this happens, then this happens, and then this happens" until the end, with Damien being assigned to retrieve a nuclear warhead from Banlieue 13, and being given the still-imprisoned Leito as a guide, and it's really hard to care. The unsurprising twist ending involves class tensions that are all the more palpable in the aftermath of the riots last year; but it's not satire so much as a pretext, and whatever Besson's charms, his ability to engage in political commentary is not among them. Morel doesn't do anything particularly interesting after this, besides constant rotate the camera around the actors in 270 degree swaths, but it's not his fault: there's nothing of substance to do interesting things with. The film tries for a classic Hong Kong kung-fu format of "heroes run for a bit, stop to have a fight," but the fights are all pretty rote, even the obligatory fat, hairy, bald giant fight. Come on, it's a fat, hairy, bald giant! How do you fuck that up?

And so we're left with something I never would have thought imaginable: a Luc Besson film with more steak than sizzle (dismal though that steak be). Don't get me wrong, it goes by real fast, 85 mintes that feel barely half that (at one point I hoped the short running time meant that something had been cut, but it appears that it debuted at that length in France), and it's more diverting by far than Mission: Impossible III or X-Men: The Last Stand, but it's no The Transporter either.

And now my difficulty as a reviewer: do I recommend skipping it, as fully three-quarters of the film is pointless and uninteresting? Or do I recommend seeing it, seeing that bravura opening fifteen minutes, which is a truly terrific action sequence and fully deserves being seen on film on a big screen? This is easily dealt with for the projectionists in my readership, but to everyone else I can only say that if you've got 90 minutes to kill and have ever enjoyed Besson and you've already seen whatever good is playing, you could certainly go worse.