It's perhaps inevitable that the success of the 2004 near-future crime actioner District 13 [Banlieue 13] would spawn a direct sequel. The original found an audience beyond home shores through its unique melding of the imported thrills of high speed martial arts combat with the French originated sport of parkour, whose participants run through urban landscapes and pause for nothing, leaping, climbing and vaulting over anything that stands in their way. It borrowed a lot from Hollywood and Hong Kong action cinema, but carved its own European identity through its social subtext and the low key performances and easy charisma of its two leads, ex-stunt man and fight arranger Cyril Raffaelli and Parkour co-originator David Belle.
Raffaelli and Belle play Special Forces Captain Damien Tomaso and athletically upstanding District 13 citizen Leito respectively. District 13, for those who've not seen the original (and if you're going to watch this one then you should, as it's assumed that you have and there's precious little situation setup here to guide you in), is a walled-off section of Paris in which the city's worst ghettos have been physically contained and isolated, an area ruled by gangs in which the police have only a tenuous grip on law and order. In the first film Damien teamed up with Leito to locate and disarm a stolen neutron bomb that was set to wipe out all life in the district. The twist was (and please, if you've not seen the first film then stop now and watch it first or skip to the next paragraph) that the theft was stage-managed by city officials looking for a quick way to clear the slums.
This time around we're clued into the city's dastardly scheme from the start, as the slippery boss of development company Harriburton (yes, I will be coming back to that) hands a case crammed with cash to a man named Walter Gassman, the head of the SWAT-like security force DISS (Department of Internal State Security, according to the subtitles) to trigger major unrest in District 13, the sort that will convince the President to authorise the evacuation of the area and the bombing of its apartment blocks and make way for nice, middle class housing. Care to guess which company is first in line for that particular contract?
We're three years on from the first film and despite a change in government it's business as usual behind the wall. Armed gangs rule the streets, the police maintain a precarious peace, and Leito is determined to do what he can to disrupt the status quo, this time by blowing holes in the wall and giving the chasing police the slip. Damien, meanwhile, is still working undercover, this time dressed as a female prostitute (convincingly so – the man has great legs) in order to bust up a major criminal gang on his side of the barrier. Neither are aware of Gassman's plans, but that all changes when Gassman orders his number one guy Roland kill two patrol cops, dump them and their car in District 13 and unleash a couple of shots at the locals, who respond to what they believe is a police assault with a barrage of automatic fire. Roland has his goon videotape the whole thing and Gassman uses the footage to persuade the Pres that things are out of control in the slums and that his plan to eradicate the problem is the only way to restore order. The new President is not so easily swayed, however, and wants to send Tomaso in to see if the situation can be defused, but he's just been banged up on a heroin possession charge that was trumped up by Gassman's boys to keep him out of the way. The situation worsens when Gassman leaks the video onto the internet, which whips up public outrage and prompts an angry policeman to murder a gang suspect, which in turn sees the police come under retaliatory rocket attack. As the unrest escalates, the President's options begin to narrow.
But just as things seem to be going Gassman's way, his team discover that they weren't the only one shooting video that night, and that Roland's murder of the two cops was caught on camera by local kid Samir, who passes the footage to Leito just before he's nabbed by Gassman's boys. Damien, meanwhile, jumps his two prison guards and and uses their phone to call Leito to help him get out of jail. Leito obliges, and with the DISS boys now after both of the men, they return to District 13 and hatch a plan to unite the region's diverse gangs and scupper Gassman's plans.
District 13: Ultimatum [Banlieue 13 – Ultimatum] is very much in the mould of its predecessor, with Damien and Leito teamed up in a bid to prevent corrupt outside interests from laying waste to Leito's neighbourhood. The establishing scenes are also a structural mirror image of those in the first film, with another dose of digital whizzy-cam used to eye-catchingly establish the ghetto's various cliques, followed by Leito dodging his pursuers through some creative running and Damien kicking seven bells of shit out of the gang he has gone undercover to expose. It's right here that a key and slightly bemusing difference between the two films first rears it's head. As directed by Pierre Morel, the first film's opening parkour chase was a bit of a stunner, but its equivalent here is a peculiarly limp affair in which Leito doesn't so much leap and dodge his way past his pursuers as simply out-run them. Damien's kung-fu skills, on the other hand, are most impressively showcased (a fight in which a valuable Van Gogh painting is used as a weapon is particularly memorable) by replacement director Patrick Alessandrin's canny camera placement and edit timing. This lead player imbalance extends to the screen time offered to each of these intros, with Leito's over in a flash and Damien's played out over ten action-packed minutes.
But in most other respects Ultimatum is its predecessor's equal and intermittently shows signs of surpassing it, notably in its more layered plot, its slick narrative development (the leaking of the video and the montage of reactions that follows is impressively economical storytelling), Daniel Duval's low-key icy menace as Gassman, and a more pronounced sociopolitical subtext, with the Israeli/West Bank overtones of the dividing wall joined by a sly critique of American military action in Iraq, specifically in the plan to bomb a district with an eye on the money to be made in its reconstruction. Of course, similar overtones have been read into just about every film and TV series made in the last three years that involves armed conflict, but any doubts here are dispelled by the decision to name the developer who is set to profit from the D13's destruction Harriburton – change just two letters and you have a company whose ties to former US vice president Dick Cheney had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with them landing a lucrative and exclusive contract to rebuild Iraq's oil industry infrastructure following the US-led invasion. There's also a deliberate and enjoyable cultural diversity to the D13 gangs, with the Chinese, Blacks, skinhead white and Arabic Muslims all represented, and a comic-book figure of real cult potential created in tattooed female Chinese gang leader Tao, who listens to music while she fights, uses her hair as a weapon and is as hot as she is lethal.
Less welcome is the decision to up the action into the realms of fantasy with the recent favourite of driving a car through a second storey window into an office block whose corridors are somehow wide enough for it to comfortably navigate, then out through another window onto parked cars below without suffering any serious damage or even stalling the engine. There's a similar degree of wish fulfillment to the weapon-free climactic assault on the presidential headquarters, though it's well handled enough for us to cut the filmmakers some action movie slack.
It's in this nod to excess and the bungled handling of the parkour chases that District 13: Ultimatum loses some of the points gained in the storytelling and blisteringly choreographed fight scenes. This probably wouldn't hurt as much if the first film hadn't made parkour such a crucial part of its's identity and what made it stand out from the action thriller crowd, and the sequel's failure to even equal, let alone build on its predecessor's work here is keenly felt. Fortunately there's plenty of compensation in the storytelling, the engagingly unforced performances (including a convincing turn by Philippe Torreton as the Republic's troubled president), and combat sequences whose physical stunts once again demonstrate that the French are starting to give Hong Kong a run for its martial arts money. The ending suggests that the series will conclude here, which is actually a shame – Belle and Raffaelli make for a most engaging partnership and I can't be the only one who would enjoy seeing them paired up for a third adventure.
A crisp 2.35:1 picture with excellent contrast, solid black levels and consistent colour within the inevitable post-production digital grading. It's the sort of consistent, blemish-free transfer we've come to expect from modern action movies, and District 13: Ultimatum doesn't let the side down. Even upscaled there are no signs of compression artefacts. I've not seen the Blu-ray yet but I'd imagine it looks pretty damned fine.
Accompanying the picture is a beefy, crystal clear and well mixed 5.1 French language soundtrack whose dialogue and effects always stand out from the music, no matter how loud and bass-heavy it is. Frontal separation is subtle but effective, and as with so many 5.1 tracks it's the music that makes most use of the surrounds.
The alternative English dub is intermittently comical, less for the dialogue than its dopey delivery and the mismatch of voices to character – the streetwise Damien and Leito sound as if they've just graduated from Eton, while the rest of District 13 appears to be policed and inhabited by either professional mockneys or public schoolboys and their dads. As so often, little attempt has been made to make the voices match the location acoustics.
Making of (26:36)
A busy, EPK-style behind-the-scenes promo that covers all the expected bases and a few more besides – director Alessandrin outlines his approach, the lead actors talk about about working together again, and titled chapters are devoted to the gangs, the stunts, the parkour, the Belgrade location, Raffaelli's fight choreography, the final assault and more.
Deleted and Extended Scenes (9:22)
Different edits of Damien's corridor fight and the first interior scene of the final assault, plus some brief deleted rooftop fight sequences.
Music Video 'Determine' by Alonzo (3:35)
A French rap track used in the film is given predictable video treatment, with extracts from the film cut with shots of Alonzo and his homies cutting shapes with spread-fingered hands as they walk at the camera trying to look like hard men.
Also included are the Teaser Trailer (1:10) and the Theatrical Trailer (1:51), both of them fast-paced sells.
I still can't believe they botched the parkour sequences, but in most other respects District 13: Ultimatum delivers on the promise of its predecessor without varying the formula too drastically. Raffaelli certainly steals the show here, and watching him in action I kept thinking that martial arts superstardom must surely be just around the corner. Momentum's disc looks and sounds good and does OK on extras – fans of the original who haven't already snapped the sequel up should do so with haste.