District 13: Ultimatum
2009, R, 95 min. Directed by Patrick Alessandrin. Starring Cyril Raffaelli, David Belle, Fabrice Feltzinger, Elodie Yung, MC Jean Gab'1, James Deano, Daniel Duval.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 5, 2010
You don't have to be familiar with the 2005 French riots to appreciate this nervy, comic action pic, but foreknowledge of France's recent (and ongoing) xenophobic shudderings certainly imparts to D13: Ultimatum a canny streak of ripped-from-Le Monde social commentary. Due in large part to its cultural relevance, this is also one of the few sequels that nearly succeeds in topping the original. If 2004's District B13 was an escapist piece of lighter-than-air, meringue-flavored actioneering (it was), then Ultimatum is like a brick thrown through cinephiliac French Prime Minister Sarkozy's window, albeit one infused with both a populist political bent and a giddy sense of gallows humor. The whole thing is French to its core, but thanks to a witty, often self-referential script, once again penned by action-film godhead Luc Besson, it's also trés kickass in the most literal sense of the word. It never manages to approach the suspenseful heights or complex characterizations of La Femme Nikita or The Professional, but taken as a politically aware live-action cartoon, Ultimatum soars. That's in part because the entire D13 franchise is based upon the relatively new sport of parkour, which weds the sky-high athletic precision of a circus acrobat to the Shaw Brothers’ penchant for impossibly long, wire-assisted air ballets – except in parkour there are no wires, and every available surface is but a springboard to a higher (or lower) plane. Gravity? That's so American. As with its predecessor, Ultimatum pairs parkour founder Belle (who bears a striking similarity to Toei anime's spiky-haired Dragon Ball Z lead), as heroic ghetto defendant Leïto with Raffaelli's undercover detective Damien Tomaso. The set-up employs Bessonian plotting at its most comic-book-esque, but once these two are united again against a common foe – corrupt French politicians and businessmen who are determined to crush the walled, multiethnic ghetto of the title and build condos in its place – the action commences and much of it is breathtaking. In particular, a jaw-dropping battle between hordes of underworld thugs and Tomaso, who is armed with only – wait for it! – a priceless Van Gogh painting and his wits, boggles the mind. Martial arts meets art history head-on, and the resulting hyperchoreographed chaos is downright sublime. Buster Keaton would be amused. D13: Ultimatum, while terrific fun, is no one's idea of a subtle French import, nor is it meant to be. Besson, who over the years has lent his action-adventure writing skills to all manner of middling projects (the Taxi series roars to mind) accomplishes exactly what he sets out to do with Ultimatum: namely, create a supercool comic book adventure with just enough of a left-of-center political bent to attract the marginalized and seething teenage French émigrés to the box office while keeping the overall tone jauntily thrilling and easily exportable. Mission accomplie.