A parkour brothers game
District 13: Ultimatum, action sequel, rated R, in French with subtitles, The Screen, 2.5 chiles American film audiences were widely introduced to the Frenchborn physical discipline known as parkour— remember Daniel Craig’s vertigo-inducing urban-landscape-hopping moves in the opening sequence of Casino Royale?— soon after the actionpacked stunt-a-thon titled District 13 had its U.S. debut at the 2005 Seattle Film Festival. In that film, the French government walls off an impoverished suburb of Paris inhabited by two million people in an attempt to contain a rampant surge in gang activity and organized crime.
In the original film, Leïto (David Belle), a parkour-practicing crusader living in one of the ghetto’s high-rises, gets tangled up with a drug dealer who kidnaps his sister and threatens to detonate a neutron bomb in the center of Paris. Leïto and Damien (Cyril Raffaelli), an undercover cop with similar physical abilities, join forces to rescue the girl, kick some bad-guy derrière, dodge a comically large onslaught of bullets, and save the city from being sautéed in nuclear butter. District 13 is more aligned with Live Free or Die Hard than, say, Claude Chabrol’s 1958 NewWave classic Le Beau Serge, and this follow-up film dutifully follows suit.
Ultimatum catches up with Leïto and Damien three years later, in 2013 (or 2016— the film inexplicably notes both years as the present within the same narrative breath) as they continue their struggle to bring peace and prosperity back to District 13 using nothing but their wits, the surfaces of urban decay, and their limbs. Having received little to no help from both the corrupt police department and a shady government-security force called DISS (apparently modeled after this country’s Department of Homeland Security, but with a strict black-suitwith-earpiece-and-perpetually-firing-big-gun dress code), Leïto
begins a guerrilla operation to bring down D13’s walls with explosives. Damien, meanwhile, has resumed his undercover work to take down gang leaders and drug lords outside the walls of the troubled district.
When two policemen are gunned down by gangsters from D13 and a video of the incident hits the desk of the French president (Philippe Torreton), the leader of DISS persuades the president to take drastic action to eradicate the criminal blight in District 13: evacuate it and blow it to smithereens (not necessarily in that order). But the murder of the two officers might not have occurred at the hands of gangsters.
An alternate video of the killings is uncovered— its creator threatens to take it to the authorities and post it on the Internet — as is a more sinister motive for flattening D13 with a nuclear air strike. When the men behind the plot to do so attempt to seize the alternate video and frame and arrest Damien (thus keeping him from meddling in their affairs), Leïto comes to his friend’s aid, and the race is on to thwart the state-sanctioned extermination of their ghetto— again.
Filmmaker, screenwriter, and cinéma du look pioneer Luc Besson ( Subway, La Femme Nikita, the Transporter film series) returns as writer here, and he unapologetically continues to flaunt his preference for style over substance while upping the international ante in action-based cinema. The political underpinnings and action set pieces in Ultimatum are laughably improbable in the real world, but director Patrick Alessandrin understands Besson’s vision clearly: as long as you get the shot, nail the stunt, and go big, a well-constructed plot and believable dialogue are not essential.
Besson’s script is riddled with contemporary geopolitical references (an evil corporation called “Harriburton” plays a pivotal role in the plot’s advancement) and ethnic stereotypes (Muslims in the scene? Cue the Middle Eastern music, and make sure we know they might be terrorists), but Belle and Raffaelli generate enough authentic actionbuddy-flick chemistry to pass as a lovable (well, likable, at least) French version of Lethal Weapon’s Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. Their performances— and that of Elodie Yung as Tao, a sexy, heavily tattooed Asian gang leader who kills people with her hair— are the only ones worth mentioning.
And by performances, I mean some of the most original and high-octane fight sequences and stunts ever committed to film, mostly executed without wire harnesses, body doubles, claustrophobic camerawork, CGI effects, excessive quick-cut edits, or hokey sound effects.
The number of parkour scenes in Ultimatum is small compared to that of the original film, and Belle and Raffaelli often engage their enemies using more traditional forms of martial arts. If you’re looking for a showcase of parkour (of which Belle is widely considered the founder), District 13, YouTube, and Yamakasi — a 1997 film also written by Besson — are better choices.
A vibrant techno/hip-hop score featuring some of France’s most talented artists (including Axiom, Trak Invaders, Da Octopusss, and Brasco) lends the film an appropriately strong air of dynamic tension and controlled chaos. Hearing it all play out on a 16-speaker Dolby Digital 6.1 surround-sound system and watching it unfold on a big curved screen is simply icing on the cake.
Don’t see Ultimatum for its gripping dialogue or deep political subtexts, because you won’t find any. But in defense of Besson, who else can so artfully bring to life the vision of an undercover cop dressed as a transvestite prostitute and using a priceless Van Gogh painting to take down a drug lord and his henchmen? If this film moves you, it will probably be in one distinct direction: back to the gym.
Destroying the City of Lights in order to save it: David Belle, left, and Cyril Raffaelli
Tao de bling: Elodie Yung