District 13: Ultimatum
Opens in limited theatrical release on February 5th. Now available on participating On Demand services.
The original District 13 was not a particularly great movie, but it was a true original and had much to admire. It contained doozy of a first act, style to spare, and a genuinely angry political subtext at its core. Much of the film's appeal came from its use of 'parkour', a martial art form that stressed evasive action via adapting one's body to the environment. In practice, it gave way to several scenes of stars David Belle (the creator of parkour) and Cyril Raffaelli hopping off walls, flying through open holes, and contorting themselves in any which way in order to save the proverbial day. While the film inexplicably put its two major action scenes in the first act of the picture, the remainder of the film got by on slimy villains and its grimy depiction of a nearly apocalyptic French ghetto. Unfortunately, this sequel coasts by on even less than that, as the villains are bland, quirky supporting characters are non-existent, and the action scenes are surprisingly lacking, both in quantity and quality.
A token amount of plot: Two years after the events of the first film, the government's promise to reform District 13 and retake it from the ruling drug gangs has been hollow at best. Corrupt officials are attempting to use the unrest as an excuse to demolish the area and allow the private corporation Harriburton to rebuild, allowing both sides to profit handsomely. When an apparent execution of several police officers by drug-lords is caught on film, riots break out between the police and the local residents. Before hero cop Damien Tomosso (Cyril Raffaelli) can even become suspicious, he is framed on a bogus drug charge and forced to call in the aid of the vigilante Leito (David Belle). Can the two enemies turned partners reunite and again save the district from complete demolition?
While the details are a little different, you'll notice that the core narrative of District 13: Ultimatum is basically the same as the first picture. Once again runner Leito and fighter Tomasso must team up and prevent government forces from blowing up the crime-stricken projects. Once again corrupt politicians decide to simply nuke the place and start over rather than attempt to bring reform to the blighted community. The real-world politics at play are as front-and-center as the last film, and the Iraq occupation is even explicitly mentioned this time around. There are certainly parallels to the destruction and attempted renovation of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina as well, but that particular parable is left unstated. The only real twist in the story is the addition of a noble French president who caves in to his corrupt advisers at the first sign of trouble. Intentional or not, Philippe Torreton's idealistic but seemingly weak French president will certainly strike a chord with progressives currently disappointed with the Bush/Cheney-like policies of US President Barack Obama. "Always obey the rules," Tomasso utters in a climactic fight scene, "not just when it's convenient".
While the film's politics are certainly noteworthy, most audience members will not be viewing District 13: Ultimatum for a lesson in leftist disappointment at the state of world affairs. Unfortunately, the action beats in this sequel are shockingly flat and mainly unexciting. While the first film opened with a stunning foot chase that left audiences in awe (which was copied almost beat for beat in the pilot episode of Chuck), this sequel opens with a half-hearted jog. While the first film ended its first act with an incredible fight scene/shoot-out in a casino, this film ends its first act with a bland retread where Tomasso again leads a sting that leads to a mass arrest that leads to a major fight scene. But the pace is languid and the choreography is completely uninspired (the main gimmick, involving the protection of a priceless painting, has been done in several Jackie Chan pictures). Unlike many sequels that copy the original but improves upon the set-pieces, the action scenes in this second chapter are actually less impressive and less exciting than the first film. While individual stunts are occasionally impressive, a distressing majority of the action scenes are basically either Leito running in a straight line (on the ground) from villains or Tomasso walking around beating up nameless henchmen or fellow police officers. There is a bit more action overall in this chapter (the first film basically climaxed at the forty-five minute mark), the quality is below the original District 13.
When a film that is built upon the promise of world-class stunt work and eye-popping action scenes fails to deliver on both counts, it's tough to recommend the picture on any real level. Fans of the first film will certainly get some amusement out of seeing the two stars back in action (no one else from the first film returns) and the politically-inclined will enjoy seeing their frustrations played out in a somewhat mainstream entertainment, the movie is a disappointing in the core areas that justifies its existence. Ironically, it opens in limited theatrical release on the same day as the wide release of From Paris With Love, which is directed by the original District 13's helmer, Pierre Morel. We can only hope that the world of french action films do not disappoint twice in one day.
Follow Scott Mendelson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ScottMendelson