Six years ago a highly athletic sporting event burst on the scene from France called “Parkour”. It was a bit hard to describe, but agile participants would leap off buildings, slip through tiny spaces, bounce from wall to wall, race down staircases a flight at a time and generally fly through urban landscapes, miraculously not slipping or injuring themselves. The activity was captured in a mediocre French action film called Banlieue 13 (District B13 in the USA), quickly forgotten by all but the most devoted fans.
District 13 – Ultimatum picks up the story five years later and is set in a futuristic Paris where the poor are isolated in a walled ghetto called District 13. The main characters are again the D13 guerilla fighter Leïto (David Belle) and special forces captain Damien (Cyril Raffaelli). Like the first, it’s a French film with English subtitles.
District 13 has devolved into a rough neighborhood where everyone’s involved in drugs, prostitution or gambling, as is shown in a visually exciting — though overly long — high-speed fly-through set to thumping urban hip-hop music. Leïto is fighting to break down the walls and bring opportunity to the residents of D13, even as the ganglords threaten to kill him for bringing the attention of the police and changing things, and the fly-through ends with him sticking mines on segments of the wall separating D13 from the rest of Paris.
For reasons that aren’t entirely logical, the mines have about a ten second timer, so he slaps the mine on, pushes the “activate” button, and runs to the next segment, as the last explodes. No surprise, the police show up and the first Parkour chase sequence is in motion. The illogic of placing mines with very, very short fuses is typical of the weak story in this otherwise exciting action film. If you insist on stories that actually make sense and comprehensible dialog, this isn’t the movie for you. If, however, you’re okay occasionally laughing in disbelief while watching one terrific action sequence after another, District 13: Ultimatum could prove one of your favorite films of the winter.
If you’re an action fan, you already know – and respect – the name Luc Besson. The force behind The Transporter, Taken, The Fifth Element, The Professional and La Femme Nikita, he’s mastered the art of high-energy action cinema. Besson is both the writer and producer of District 13: Ultimatum, and it shows. There are many inside jokes and amusing homage scenes to both Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon and Jackie Chan in any of the zillion movies he’s made, and it’s no accident that the evil corporation behind the story is “Harriburton”, with a logo startlingly similar to the real-life Halliburton Corporation.
The storyline has the evil Minister Gassman (Daniel Duval) being paid off by Harriburton to destroy District 13 so that they can put up a trendy apartment highrise that looks like it’d be more at home in Dubai than Paris, but that’s another story. Problem is, how do you displace millions of poor without looking heartless? The solution: create a gang war and when the tension is sufficiently escalated, push that the only viable option is to evacuate the law abiding citizens from the District and destroy everyone who’s left, along with all the structures.
We don’t learn of this dastardly plot for quite a while, however, and we first meet Damien in an undercover operation in a flashy nightclub where he’s under cover as a startlingly attractive exotic dancer. One by one, he knocks out the criminals who have shown up to complete drug deals, and at one point is attacked by a half-dozen thugs while trying to preserve an original Van Gogh. It’s a scene very reminiscent of Jackie Chan and it’s pretty darn cool how it transpires.
That sequence opens, however, with a truck full of watermelons being driven out of D13 and to the nightclub, watermelons that are dropped down a chute and cut open to reveal smuggled drugs! Ta daa! Which begs the question: how did they get the drugs into the watermelons in the first place? Grew ‘em around the bags of heroin?? As I warned earlier, plotline is not a strength of District 13: Ultimatum. This is the kind of thing I mean!
Leïto (David Belle) leaps out of the window
In a nod to the YouTube generation and the ubiquity of cellphones (not to mention a blatant rip-off of the key story element from the action film Enemy of the State), some kids are enjoying music from their cars when the police show up, then the bad guys show up. Evil deeds transpire without them knowing that the kids are busy videotaping. That videotape then becomes the proof that Leïto and Damien need to show Le Présidente (Philippe Torreton) that Gassman and his crew are up to no good.
There’s not much more to say about the story and dialog in District 13: Ultimatum. This is not an indie film that showcases extraordinary storytelling and beautiful, carefully crafted speeches, but a slam-bang action film that showcases stunts and action sequences with just enough of a storyline to give it a narrative direction.
To be fair, though, I really enjoyed District 13: Ultimatum because the action sequences are terrific, even with an occasional wry line of dialog that underscores Besson and director Patrick Alessandrin were well aware that they weren’t creating a profound contribution to the art of cinema.
The music is also worth a mention: it’s solid hip-hop and goes very well with the movie, one of the best action soundtracks I’ve heard in a while. I hope that the US distributors, Magnet Entertainment and Magnolia Home Entertainment, make it available. It’s that good.
Finally, I’ll just reiterate that there’s not much to District 13: Ultimatum other than a loosely connected series of action sequences, but that they’re generally so good that I was easily able to forgive the shortcomings of the film and have a good time in the theater. Don’t expect a masterpiece, even in the action genre, but yeah, District 13: Ultimatum is a pretty darn entertaining film nonetheless.