District 13: Ultimatum (DVD)

Doors just get in the way.

District B13 came out of nowhere (actually out of France) a few years back and wowed everyone with a gritty urban sci-fi fable combined rough n’ tumble martial arts. Plus, it introduced the practice of parkour to the world (and by “the world” I mean “me”). Now, our futuristic French heroes are back for more in the sequel, which has dropped the “B” and added an “Ultimatum.”

When we last saw tough guy cop Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) and slippery vigilante Leito (David Belle), they had brought peace to their troubled neighborhood, with a promise that the oppressive wall surrounding the slum that is District 13 would be taken down. Now, it’s a few years later, and the government has not kept its promise. The wall still stands, and tensions between the haves and the have-nots are worse than ever.

Damien is still a cop, dragging crooks to jail, while Leito continues in his guerilla warfare tactics to bring down the wall. When video circulates of a police shooting, it’s all the excuse the government needs to bomb the hell out of the entire district. Leito and Damien know better, though, and they once again team up, using all of their crazy physical stunts to bring down the conspiracy.

As much as I enjoyed the original District B13 for its high-flying action choreography, I’ll admit it wasn’t the perfect movie. If you ask most folks to describe the specifics of its plot, you’ll probably get responses like, “I think there was something about a bomb…” Also, despite the “futuristic” setting (I use quotes because the movie took place in the distant year of “2010”), I never really get a sense of place from the film. The run-down buildings certainly evoked a crime-ridden slum, but the oppressive wall so integral to the plot was glimpsed only briefly, and we just barely got a look at the bigger picture of this oh-so-futuristic setting.

Right at the start, I could tell that these two concerns of mine had been dealt with nicely. First, the setting. The movie begins with a “fly-through” of District 13, establishing the look and feel of the place. As the story progresses, the difference between the district and the rest of the city is noticeable, which provides an excellent visual illustration of the haves versus have-nots conflict I mentioned above. The plot, while not complicated, is just enough to keep the action rolling right along without confusing viewers. At the same time, it might not be realistic, but it makes just enough sense that it never comes across as just an excuse to have our heroes jump over things.

Speaking of which, I was surprised to see that there wasn’t quite as much parkour action in this one than there was in the first. While Leito is given some opportunities to show off his moves as bad guys chase him across rooftops, the emphasis is much more on the martial arts fighting, and Damien really has all the best scenes. I kept waiting for Leito to cut loose and make with a real eye-popping chase like the one that opened up the first movie, but it doesn’t happen. What David Belle gives us good, and he certainly makes for an iconic image with his tight tank top and baggy pants, but I was left wanting more.

The same can’t be said for Damien, who’s the real star. The first act contains an extended action scene in a nightclub, clearly meant to rival the over-the-top casino fight from the first movie, with Damien battling wave after wave of thugs. The scene begins with Damien baring a new side to himself, and then moving into a fight in which he has to take out a bunch of henchmen while protecting a priceless painting. This is the type of thing that Jackie Chan used to excel at, and the fight choreographers here do an admirable job of recapturing that old school Hong Kong feeling. As the fight progresses into other areas of the building, things get less comedic and more brutal, with Damien unleashing furious justice on his enemies. Later in the film, Damien square off against other enemies, including a bunch of his fellow cops, in a similar manner. Like in most movies of this kind, I have to wonder why the bad guys only pull their guns either before or after the punching and kicking, and never during. Maybe they’re following some code of honor something.

The stunts and fights are fun and all, but some of that fun is diminished when the movie goes into metaphor territory. Yes, the whole “corrupt government crapping all over the lower class” thing is a sci-fi and action movie staple, and that’s OK, but the creators then go specific by name-dropping Iraq and introducing an organization called “Harriburton.” I’m not here to agree or disagree with anyone’s politics, it’s that this lack of subtlety pulled me right out of the movie. I found it more unintentionally comedic than shocking or thought provoking. Part of the reason for this is how the political soapboxing comes right on the heels of some of the movie’s cheesiest moments, such as a generously-tattooed woman slicing up thugs with a knife tied to the end of her long hair.

This is great-looking and better-sounding DVD. The movie’s gritty, grainy look is intentional, and the picture shows it all off for maximum griminess. Audio is even better, especially whenever the pounding score kicks in. The best of the extras is a making of featurette, which, naturally, focuses mostly on the stunts. It’s a nice look at how the movie was made under rushed circumstances, and how there was a sense of camaraderie for everyone involved. The disc also has production diaries, deleted and extended scenes, a music video, and a promotional piece from HDNet.

Be sure to watch the movie in its original French with English subtitles, because, wow, the English dub is horrendously bad.

Martial arts and action fans would totally enjoy District 13: Ultimatum. Storywise, it’s not much, but the jumps and kicks will keep you entertained.

The Verdict

The residents of District 13 are found not guilty and are free to go. Doors everywhere, however, are found guilty of always getting in the way of those cool parkour moves.

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