I’m quite a fan of the original District 13, the parkour-influenced 2004 sci-fi/martial arts movie co-written and produced by Luc Besson. It’s a fun martial arts flick that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and really exists as a showcase for martial artist Cyril Raffaelli and parkour co-creator David Belle. It’s set in a near-future France where civil and economic unrest has deteriorated to the point where the slums have been walled off into numbered districts where all sorts of illegal activities go down and even the police fear to enter. The story follows straight-laced cop Damien (Rafaelli), who must team up with streetwise outlaw Leito (Belle) to save Leito’s sister from evil drug dealers, and also save Leito’s building (which he rules as a benevolent protector, outlawing drugs and other shady activity), and the rest of District 13 from a bomb the corrupt government wants to use to level the entire district for some impromptu gentrification.
District 13: Ultimatum is the sequel, reteaming Belle and Rafaelli as Leito and Damien, and it ups the ante in just about every sense. A text crawl at the beginning explains that in the three years since the first movie, literally nothing in District 13 has changed – the promise Leito got that the government would clean up the slums has gone, unsurprisingly, unfulfilled (“The government reneged on a promise?,” another character deadpans in response to Leito’s gripes. “That’s a total outrage!”) – and quickly establishes that Leito is up to his old tricks fighting back against The Man. The plot this time around really expands on the social commentary in the first movie – the original District 13, as much as it’s an action flick, also had a lot to say about the state of modern France, which, at the time of its release, was dealing with a lot of street violence and anti-immigrant sentiment – concerning an incendiary video of cops apparently being gunned down in cold blood by District 13 residents, which almost sparks a civil war. Naturally, some shady government types (seemingly a cross between the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the CIA) are behind it all, and its up to Damien and Leito to expose the conspiracy.
Regular readers know of my love of martial arts movies, and the first time I saw parkour in action – it was actually a YouTube clip of what turned out to be the best sequence in District 13, showing Leito eluding a gang of cops – I thought it was one of the coolest and craziest things I’d ever seen. I love the speed and kinetics of a well-choreographed fight scene, and what Belle was doing was sort of similar, but with less emphasis on fighting and more on speed and graceful movements. It was just a blast to watch him do what he does. So when I found out that this crazy sequence was from a movie, I was incredibly excited – even more so when I learned that Belle’s co-star was Rafaelli, who I recognized from a great fight scene with Jet Li in the otherwise forgettable (but similarly Besson-produced) 2001 actioner Kiss of the Dragon. The idea of a movie that mixes parkour and martial arts is a brilliant one, and the original District 13 is a wonderfully fun movie with boundless energy.
My main problem with the original District 13 – which my comic-addled mind considers the greatest Batman/Superman movie never made – is that it makes the cardinal action-movie sin of peaking early, putting the most impressive sequences near the beginning, which ends up making the rest of the movie feel like a letdown after those incredible early action scenes (not that the ending isn’t cool – the filmmakers seemed to realize that they couldn’t really provide Damien or Leito with an adequate adversary for the climax, so instead they have to fight each other), but thankfully Ultimatum doesn’t fall into that trap. Director Patrick Alessandrin wisely ramps up the action scenes, and he doesn’t frontload the movie with the coolest stuff. Instead, the action gets crazier and crazier as the film goes along (our heroes drive a car through a government building midway through the film, and that’s before the parkour army shows up), making Ultimatum feel like an old-fashioned sequel; everyone involved is trying to give fans more of what they loved about the first movie, and in this case, it definitely works.
There’s a nice vibe between Belle and Rafaelli in these movies that’s oddly infectious. Sure, neither of them is going to win any acting awards for their work here, but they have a natural chemistry together and, as a fan of the first movie, I was surprised how much of a kick I got out of the scene where the two characters finally hook up again. There’s a great (if traditional) dynamic between the almost comically by-the-book cop and the more cynical, streetwise tough, and both Rafaelli and Belle bring a great dry humor to their roles, and their odd-couple banter is never overdone.
The strangest part of District 13: Ultimatum was the ham-fisted political commentary, which is thankfully confined to just the last couple of minutes. There was a bit of the same in the first movie, but screenwriter Luc Besson lays it on far thicker in the sequel, from the name of the evil corporation at the center of the conspiracy (Harriburton!) to the left-wing fanfiction ending, District 13: Ultimatum wears its political standpoint on its sleeve, and it’s oddly charming (if for no reason other than I really don’t think an American-made action film would have the stones to take things as far as this movie is willing to). It’s very much a reaction to the immigration debate currently raging in France, but to Besson’s and director Patrick Alessandrin’s credit, the film manages to say what it has to say without really bogging the proceedings down or making it anything less than fun. Overall, District 13: Ultimatum is an incredibly fun action movie with tons of eye-popping stunts and great fights. If you’re into this kind of movie, I recommend it highly.
District 13: Ultimatum has the best collection of deleted and extended scenes I’ve seen in a while, as they’re all extended versions of the movies fight sequences. It’s sort of a surprising decision to cut down the fight scenes in a martial arts movie (it’s sort of like cutting out scenes of the two good-looking leads together in a romantic comedy), but I’m assuming they were trimmed to help the movie’s pacing, and nothing crucial was excised. But the longer scenes are on the DVD, and they’re pretty much all awesome. There’s also a French rap video, and a pretty decent making-of featurette in French (with English subtitles) that goes over most aspects of production (stunts, casting, etc.). It’s fairly interesting stuff, if nothing groundbreaking.
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