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District 13: Ultimatum
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by Jay Seaver

"Parkour crosses borders."
4 stars

I hate to be a scold about such things, but I saw "District 13: Ultimatum" back-to-back with "From Paris with Love" (well, back-to-back with time to walk from one theater to another). Both came from Luc Besson's action-movie factory, and the director of "Paris" actually directed the first "District 13" film. One featured heavily-doubled Americans, while the other had French guys doing amazingly athletic things. One was still playing a few mainstream theaters after being in release a few weeks; the other just getting one week in a boutique house which doesn't really draw fans of pure popcorn movies. Why? Because for some reason, when American audiences go to a movie looking for action, they actually care what language the actors are speaking enough to choose John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys Myers over Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle.

Those who saw 2004's District 13 know what Raffaelli and Belle are capable of, and as Ultimatum picks up three years later (in 2016), nothing has really changed. Though France has a new President, D13 is still walled off. Belle's Leito still lives there, trying to blast down the walls separating it from Paris; Raffaelli's Damien is still an undercover cop. Crimelords such as MC Jean Gab'1's Molko aren't too unhappy with the arrangement - they go about their business more or less in peace, and D13 supports the city's more tight-knit ethnic neighborhoods - but that neglect isn't going to last forever. Walter Gassman (Daniel Duval), head of the Department of Internal State Security, sees prime real estate for development, and figures that the best way to go about that is to start a riot where DISS must go in and take control.

The story is more than a little silly, and that's before getting to some of the details. In some ways, it's more than a little obvious what Besson, his co-writers, and director Patrick Alessandrin are trying to say about gentrification - in some ways, it's the thematic follow-up to John Carpenter's Escape From New York, where the white flight of decades past is now being thrown into reverse, with a Starbucks on every corner and rents that price the locals out of their homes. The film's heart is in the right place about this most of the time, although it sometimes misses the line between "better a vibrant neighborhood with gangsters than a mall full of yuppies" and "gangsters are awesome!", and it more or less completely stops practicing what it preaches toward the end for one last (offscreen!) bang. Plus, well, it's hard to get a message taken seriously when you start off with an action scene featuring the top cop in curiously effective drag.

That action scene is fun as heck, though, as are the later ones. They're built around what Raffaelli and Belle can do, and that's a lot: Raffaelli is really good at the marital arts, as well as a top-notch stunt coordinator, while Belle is the inventor of parkour, a form of "free running" that stresses getting from point A to point B in the most efficient manner possible. So we see Belle's Leito making a bunch of crazy jumps and squeezing through tight spots as DISS agents chase him through the city, and Raffaelli's Damien goes Jackie Chan on the various thugs around him with whatever happens to be available (especially a priceless work of art which he's mentioned cannot be allowed to be scratched). Alessandrin does a good job of hitting the right tone with these action scenes, too - they're often playful and silly enough to make the audience laugh, but played out with enough skill to make the pulse race a bit.

Part of that comes from the cast. As mentioned before, Raffaelli and Belle have more background in stuntwork than acting, but they've got easy on-screen charisma and play off each other well here, even without the adversarial pairing of the first movie. Elodie Yung, MC Jean Gab'1, and the other folks playing gangsters add color to the goings-on, both literally and figuratively; they're fun to watch and remind us that D13 is multicultural. Daniel Duval isn't quite so gloriously evil as the first film's Taha, but he is enjoyable scummy, and Pierre-Marie Mosconi is suitably imposing as his lead enforcer.

"District 13: Ultimatum" isn't quite the holy-crap-I've-never-seen-this experience of its predecessor - like when Hollywood finally took notice of Hong Kong in the 1990s, parkour sequences have been integrated into recent James Bond and "Die Hard" installments. The difference is that Raffaelli and Belle can do it without the camera having to fool us, making for smoother, more amazing action. Yeah, they're speaking French, but what's more important, familiar faces tossing off one-liners without subtitles, or people who are really good at action doing action well?

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originally posted: 02/24/10 06:50:39
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  05-Feb-2010 (R)
  DVD: 27-Apr-2010


  DVD: 27-Apr-2010

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