[This review originally ran with the film's screening at Fantastic Fest but with District 13 Ultimatum now screening at Action Fest we hereby present it to you again.]
District 13 is once again in trouble. The gangs are restless,
promised changes have not come to pass, poverty and crime are as
rampant as ever. And, just in case things weren't difficult and complex
enough in the anarchic district, it appears as though it has a new
enemy, a powerful and well financed enemy determined to bring the wrath
of the establishment down upon the people and willing to kill to do so.
In the face of lawlessness and rising violence there can be only one
response: by-the-book supercop Damien and free roaming -- free running,
I should say -- vigilante Leto must once again join forces to bring
peace to District 13.
When Pierre Morel's District B13 burst on to the scene in 2004,
prescient timing and clever marketing allowed the film to tap into the
bubbling awareness of a new extreme sport, parkour. By casting
parkour's co-creator David Belle as Leto and then building the film
around his unique skills the film delivered something people had never
before seen on screen, a dazzling combination of speed, strength, grace
and fearlessness. Largely on Belle's back the film became a huge
international hit and so producer Luc Besson did what smart producers
always do in cases like these: he took his original formula, shifted
the focus slightly and made a sequel.
While the original District B13 was very much Belle's coming out
party this second installment casts its eye largely on his partner,
French martial artist Cyril Raffaelli. Though you may not think of
France as a hotbed for martial arts, Raffaelli is so good that he has
been hired to choreograph fight films in Hong Kong and his performance
as Damien is loaded with raw energy and charisma, his flying fists and
feet dazzling to watch on screen. If the first B13
provided a taste of
what Raffaelli was capable of, this second provides a full course meal.
Fill out the cast with charismatic characters heading the competing
gangs -- Black
's MC Jean Gab'1 plays a key role -- and District B13
proves that sometimes you really can go back again.
This is not, however, to say that District 13: Ultimatum
does not have some significant problems. There is definitely an element of sequel sag here. The core villains of the piece lack the raw charisma of the original - when will people realize that land scams don't make for compelling plot lines? - and Belle seems strangely disinterested and uninvolved in the whole piece. It could be simply that some of the luster has come off of the parkour movement but it seems more as if the producers simply pulled out a pre-existing martial arts script tailored for Raffaelli and then tried to shove Belle in rather than building a story from the ground up designed to showcase his unique abilities as they did the first time out.
The wasting of Belle - a true revelation in the first picture - and failure to provide the heroes with a compelling villain to battle is a disappointment, true, but Raffaelli is certainly not. The man is blessed with a natural charisma that makes him a joy to watch and this is his coming out party, the film representing by far his best moment on screen. His fights are furious, intense and cleverly choreographed to showcase his power, his technique, and a surprising sense of humor. And Raffaelli brings along some fantastic support pieces as well, one fight sequence in particular featuring a young woman from the gangs who fights by whipping her long, braided hair - with blades attached to the end - at her enemies. In the end it makes for a film that fails to truly build on the successes of the original but is pretty damn entertaining in its own right.