Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: Paul Walker’s Penultimate Film and Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century

by Matt McKenna

1395713432597A story was recently imported from France to America, and it has since become a national sensation. It is the story of inequality and the danger of capitalism run amok. It is a prophecy for social upheaval if this inequality isn't handled in a timely manner. It is, by all accounts, an important story. Of course, I'm referring to Paul Walker's penultimate film, Brick Mansions, a parkour action flick he co-stars with David Belle and RZA. A film this dense begs for analysis, and fortunately there's already a compendium on the market whose popularity is threatening to rival that of the film itself. This study-guide, written by French economist Thomas Piketty, is called Capital in the Twenty-First Century and is essential reading for any American attempting to explore the economic allusions within Brick Mansions.

Brick Mansions is an American remake of the 2004 French film, District B13. While the remake does Americanize its subject matter, the larger plot elements of the story remain intact: as crime in Detroit increases to horrifyingly high levels, the government erects walls around the city's most dangerous neighborhood, a large block of rundown high-rises known as Brick Mansions. Lino (David Belle) is a resident of Brick Mansions and parkour enthusiast who is interested in killing drug kingpin Tremaine (RZA) for kidnapping his girlfriend. Lino is joined in his quest by Damien Collier (Paul Walker), a naive cop sent into Brick Mansions to deactivate a rogue neutron bomb that found its way into the area. As to be expected in an action film, our heroes are ceaselessly bombarded by henchmen with terrible aim and a proclivity for standing near the edges of rooftops. As the duo battles their way through the parade of bad guys, Lino's parkour skills prove to be an invaluable resource as he deftly traverses terrain filled with just-out-of-reach ladders, windows, and objects from which he can perform flips and other incredible feats of jumping. Collier is less agile than his counterpart, but a deep-seated rage over the death of his father affords him superhuman tenacity and an exceptionally wry wit.

You'd be forgiven if you read the above description and came to the conclusion that Brick Mansions is nothing but a brainless action movie whose core audience's age tops out at fourteen. In fact, you'd still be forgiven if you watched the movie and came away with the very same conclusion. Because the film is so oblique, it is easy to miss the nuanced social and economic critiques amongst the plethora of kicks and fist-bumps. Thankfully, Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, an impressive work in and of itself, decodes Brick Mansions and provides viewers with the opportunity to understand this frequently difficult film.

In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Piketty's thesis is that the financial return from owning capital is greater than the rate of growth for the economy as a whole. The upshot is that those who own capital can increase their wealth without needing to perform further labor–they simply extract rent from those who require their services. Over time, folks who don't own significant capital and instead earn their living via their labor come to possess a diminishing percentage of the nation's total wealth. Eventually, this economic dynamic leads to extreme inequality between the nation's richest and poorest citizens. The key insight that capital so completely dominates labor in the long term converts Brick Mansions' plot from an incomprehensible mishmash of gangster clichés into an elegant assessment of modern capitalism.

Even on its surface, Brick Mansions offers a social critique, albeit a trite one: the affluent residents of Brick Mansion's Detroit prefer to wall up their social problems rather than handle them, an obvious allusion the United States' high incarceration rate and dangerously porous social safety net. But when Collier realizes that the code he was given to deactivate the neutron bomb is actually the code to detonate it, the story–at first glance, anyway–deteriorates into senselessness. It just doesn't seem to follow any sort of rational logic for Detroit's mayor and the other conspirators to send Paul Walker's character on a perilous mission into this dangerous neighbor to set off a weapon of mass destruction that's already located in the place where it's intended to explode. I mean, why not detonate the thing remotely? I find it hard to believe a neutron bomb capable of destroying large swaths of urban infrastructure can only be detonated by somebody sitting next to the physical device and pressing the “on” button.

It would therefore be easy to simply dismiss this strange plot contrivance as a defect in a schlocky action film. However, this strange plot contrivance is in no way a defect–it is actually the point of the film. As Piketty tells us, the relative power of labor is continually diminished under the currently lucrative and compounding returns on capital. In this economic reality, to earn your living through labor is to progressively fall further behind with each day you work. The futility of continually working while never improving one's relative station in life, the madness of running on a financial treadmill with an ever-increasing belt-speed, the frustration of living at the whim of those fortunate enough to own important things–that's what Brick Mansions is about. In this light, the absurd plot point requiring Paul Walker's character to be hoodwinked into detonating a bomb is transformed into a beautiful allegory for capitalists' built-in advantages over labor. Why should the capitalists go through the trouble of developing a remote detonation system? It's got labor to push buttons, and labor is cheap.

Incredibly, Brick Mansions' running time clocks in at a breezy eighty-nine minutes. Through the power of narrative structure and the language of film, screenwriter Luc Besson and director Camille Delamarre have crafted an efficient movie that carefully encapsulates the current state of capitalism in America. For comparison, it takes Thomas Piketty nearly seven hundred pages to unpack Brick Mansions in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Its brevity unfortunately engenders a potential misreading of the film as a vacuous popcorn flick best watched on Netflix while doing something else. But viewers willing to read the film as an expression of modern capitalism will be well rewarded for their efforts. These viewers will understand that, yes, it is absurd for the mayor to attempt to demolish the Brick Mansions neighborhood by sending a parkour expert and a credulous cop into an urban war zone and have them, completely unawares, detonate a neutron bomb. But then, the current form of capitalism in the United States is absurd too.