A park­our broth­ers game

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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

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