A film review by Craig J. Koban May 11, 2010


2010, R, 100 mins.


Damien: Cyril Raffaelli / Leito: David Belle / President: Philippe Torreton / Gassman: Daniel Duval / Tao: Elodie Yung

Directed by Patrick Alessandrin / Written by Luc Besson


In French with English subtitles

There is an action sequence during DISTRICT 13: ULTIMATUM that is so utterly preposterous, but brazenly creative that it has to be seen to be believed.  

Undercover cop Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli) is surrounded by armed goons that are just itching to kill him in the most fiendish manner possible.  He looks around briefly and then sees – wouldn’t you know it – a priceless Van Gogh painting.  Now, you would expect that the precious work of art would be reduced to fireplace kindling if it were to be used both as a weapon and shield, but the manner that Damien dexterously uses it to disarm and subdue his attackers will maintaining its pristine condition is kind of astounding. 

It is that sly level of reckless and spontaneous cleverness that separates DISTRICT 13: ULTIMATUM and its prequel, 2006’s DISTRICT B13 from other lame and disposable action vehicles.  You may recall the first film – which was directed by TAKEN helmer Pierre Morel and written by Luc Besson – takes place in the not-too-distant future of Paris where its ghettos have been segregated from the rest of society by a large, Berlin Wall-esque structure.   The rest of the basic storyline line was essentially pure filler for the film’s breakneck and implausibly entertaining stunts and action sequences, which featured two young French actors that, yes, I believed in my review deserved worthy comparisons to a young Jackie Chan.  The dynamic, gravity-defying duo from DISTRICT 13 was Raffaelli and  David Belle: the former demonstrated a kick-ass and empowered grasp of the martial arts and the latter was a student of acrobatic leaping and evasive tactics. 

I barely recall in any discernable details what that first film was really about: It contained dialogue as laughable and regurgitated as it gets, character development that was borderline comatose, and a narrative involving police versus ruthless gangs that I've seen too many times to count.  But, by God, the simple pleasure of watching Raffaelli and Belle use their limitless speed, nimbleness, and complete disregard for their own apparent safety was the only reason to engage in the movie.  They took what was fundamentally a B-grade exploitation film and instead infused in it a real sense of adrenaline-induced dynamism: The manner that the pair hurtled themselves head first into one scene after another of slickly choreographed mayhem and carnage was inspired, not to mention that it left you fairly stunned and amazed.

Both are back doing much of the same in the sequel, which furthers their exploits in yet another throwaway and undistinguished storyline, but…ah…who cares…because the real point here again is to see Raffaelli and Belle leap, summersault, twist, climb, fall, swing, punch and kick their way through one ridiculously energetic and creative action scene after the other.  Once again, I found myself marveling in a state of childlike glee at these two superhumanly flexible and agile performers and was reminded of something that I wrote regarding my feelings about the first film: “Certain films do not necessarily have to be intelligent in order for them to be highly entertaining.” That is perhaps the finest compliment I could bestow upon ULTIMATUM: the sheer enjoyment of engaging in the kinetic and innovative action scenes and watching Raffaelli and Belle put their bodies on the line for the sake of showmanship is the pulse of the film.

Three years have passed since the first DISTRICT 13: It is now Paris of 2013 and after Captain Damien and Leito (Belle) saved the district from government annihilation they are once gain faced with fighting unscrupulous political forces that wish to slash and burn the ghetto for their own twisted needs.  The district itself is still deeply secluded from the rest of Paris and is still run by varying warring gangs, so not much in essence has changed.  Tensions, however, are at an all-time high, especially after one powerful gang leader, Taha Bemamud (Bibi Naceri) is killed, which now leaves the five remaining gangs all vying for control over the warring district.

Things start to get really tense for Damien, who – after a successful mission against a district drug lord - discovers that he has been ruthlessly framed at home with three kilograms of heroine planted by the police and, as a result, he has been arrested.  To make matters worse, a vile and duplicitous security agent named Roland (Pierre-Marie Mosconi) has conspired and directly killed two police officers in their cars and then has dumped their corpses in the 13th District to pin blame on the gangs in hopes of eliciting a civil war.  By doing this, the Department of Internal State Security plans to hatch out a scheme that will level the district in order to rebuild it using corporate backers (money grabbing corporations, as of late, have replaced Nazis as the most political correct villains of the movies as of late).  This, of course, will not do for Captain Damien, so he contacts his friend Leito to assist him with breaking out of jail so that they can both secretly re-enter the district, make peace with all of the rival gangs, and reveal the insidious plot of the government before it’s too late. 

ULTIMATUM was directed by Patrick Alessandrin (replacing Morel) from a script by Besson and the one thing the pair acknowledge right from the get-go is that viewers will care less for the story (which, to be fair, is essentially a rehash of the first film) and more for the bone crushing fight scenes and the sustained “Parkour” chase sequences (a term in English that  means “the art of displacement” and involves overcoming any obstacle in one’s path by adapting oneself to the environment on the fly; Belle is a practitioner in real life).   What occurs on screen has the simultaneous sensation of lightning fast spontaneity and delicately precise choreography, and it is that odd fusion that always makes the action so fever pitched and energetic.

Thankfully, ULTIMATUM does not welch on its intended promises for jaw-dropping action: I loved the spirited innovation of the aforementioned sequence involving the Van Gogh painting, but I also appreciated an expended battle between Damien and a slew of drug dealing criminals in a club.  Then there are moments that are almost disbelievingly exhilarating, like a scene where Damien lunges through a very tight open window in a sports car without making any contact on the vehicle, not to mention a potentially fatal roof dive by Belle; regardless of whether wires or effects tinkering had a place, that jump is still a pulse pounding rush.  More wicked ingenuity abounds in other scenes, like when rudimentary items like step ladders and police security tape are used as lethal weapons.  Hell, even a ponytail at one point (courtesy of a principle female gang leader, played by Elodie Yung) is used to slice enemies into Swiss cheese.  Perhaps the most incredulously inspired moment occurs when Damien and Lieto escape from police in a mini-car during which they take a turn down a dead end alley and then - presto! – they manage to magically find a perfectly and conveniently located ramp up to the window of an adjacent window to secure their escape.  Nice.

Not all of ULTIMATUM is goofy and unpretentious fun: The dialogue (in French with English subtitles) is as ham-invested as ever, but thankfully characters don't speak with too much frequency.  The premise of the government conspiring to demolish the district seems almost plagiarized from the first, but this time the politicizing in the script reaches unintentionally laughable levels.  The government wants to destroy parts of the district and then remake it as they see fit under the helping hand of "Harriburton", which sounds inanely a lot like Halliburton, whose ties to the Bush White House are well known.  When one of the heroes discovers this plot, he looks at his partner and hilariously deadpans, “Just like in Iraq!”  Would-be thoughtful social commentary has no business here, especially when it's hammered home in insipid lines of throwaway dialogue.

Nonetheless, DISTRICT 13: ULTIMATUM is another reliably silly, but improbably enjoyable bit of Euro-trash action from the mind of Luc Besson, the provocateur as of late of easily digestible and unhealthy fast food “Cinema of Incredulity", a genre  where hyper stylized action and intrigue takes prominence over all known laws of physics.  As with all of Besson’s films in this genre (like the TRANSPORTER trilogy and the very recent FROM PARIS WITH LOVE), you will experience the film shaking your head at all of the insane sights, only to leave the theatre with a sly smile of sick reverence on your face for all of the reality-defying mayhem you’ve just witnessed.  ULTIMATUM is most assuredly detrimental junk food cinema for the mind, but sometimes nothing goes down better than a good "Big Mac" action thriller.  

Wait tick...this is a French film...maybe I should have said "Royale with Cheese.".   

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