(Alas, District 13: Ultimatum has already vanished from local theaters, but it will no doubt live a much longer life on Blu-Ray where you can loop those action together over and over again. This review was written for and published by In Review Online.)
For anyone who has spent hours on YouTube watching parkour videos, there is nothing more exhilarating than watching l'art du déplacement, the art of moving. Parkour, where city streets are turned into an obstacle coarse, navigates on the fringes of martial art, strength training and acrobatics. Adorn the athleticism with the most simple cinematic set-ups and parkour, or free running, quickly becomes a streetwise ballet. Anyone who has seen Casino Royale will inevitably bring up the riveting foot chase that opens the film, featuring one of the founders of parkour, Sébastien Foucan. But that was a mere flash in the parkour pan. It was form over function action producer, Luc Besson, who put the sport in the spotlight by making the stuntman the star. In this case, he recruited David Belle, one of the most influential and talented founders of the movement, to take his first lead role in the 2004 French action film Banlieue 13, also known as B-13 or District 13. High on action, low on plot, B-13 was a hit at home and an eventual modest success abroad. A sequel was all but a given.
District 13: Ultimatum picks up two years after the dynamic duo—by-the-book police Capt. Damien Tomaso and righteous ghetto revolutionary Leïto—expose the government of consciously allowing District 13 to run a road to ruin. A promise to restore order to the District and tear down the segregating walls that separate it from the rest of the city has been long forgotten. Instead, corrupt politicians have set their sights on some good old-fashioned 21st century gentrification with plans to raze the neighborhood (apparently along with the residents) and rebuild for the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The powers that be know their plan will never fly as long as saintly Capt. Damien Tomaso is on the streets with his nose to the ground. Even before Damien smells a rat, he is set up with a possession charge and thrown behind bars. Damien is counting on his fleet-footed buddy, Leïto, to break him out of jail and help him set the record straight. Joining forces once again, the muscle bound bon amis with a little help from the District 13 kingpins, must grapple, punch and kick their way to the truth.
David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli thankfully reprise their roles, as Leïto and Damien respectfully, adding charisma and physical prowess to a film that is otherwise burdened by its lame attempts to be witty. The film opens with Leïto still fighting the good fight for the disenfranchised residence of District 13. Caught trying to blow up the wall surrounding the district, police give chase to the man who loves to be chased. A pulse-driving cat and mouse run though the ghetto allows Belle to display his art with ease and elegance, leaving police in the dust or flat on their face. Damien is given a much more flamboyant and notable reintroduction. Deep within a cavernous nightclub a drug lord is ogling a female dancer from his throne. Just when the stereotypical degradation of women was getting particularly annoying, the film takes a brilliant turn and revels the dancer as our heroic detective dressed in drag, with satisfying gun in the face of the lecherous gangster. Unfortunately, the scene plays out a little too long—cutting between Damien’s made-up face and to ‘his’ impossibly buxom ass, over and over again—draining the sequence of all its momentary cleverness. The lull, however, gives way to one of the best sequences in the film. Breaking free of his wig and dress, Damien displays his more manly skills, fighting off numerous baddies while protecting a Van Gogh painting. Expertly choreographed, the show down is the shining example why Ultimatum, flawed as it is, remains entertaining.
The action fares well in the hands of director Patrick Alessandrin, who took on the sequel after B-13 director Pierre Morel moved on to bigger but not necessarily better things with Taken and From Paris with Love. Ultimatum does not carry the first installment's ethos that editing creates excitement and, settling on middle range shots, allows a little more space to enjoy the physical talents of not only Belle and Raffaelli, but the supporting cast as well. Major credit must go to Raffaelli who coordinated the fights and, in a shift from the first film, steals the show from Belle and his mind-blowing parkour. Unfortunately it doesn’t save the film from erratic pacing and a very overworked plot. The government makes for a placid cardboard enemy and the expositions into their dodgy maneuverings bring the film to an apathetic standstill. References to Halliburton, although funny, are about five years too late and civil unrest in Paris was an international headline that has come and gone. The original B-13 was able to tap into a social pulse that now seems dead, and Ultimatum lumbers under the weight of misguided deviations away from the action. Encumbered by a plodding and characterless pseudo-political drama, District 13: Ultimatum proves that good guy charisma and top-notch action can only carry a film so far.