I know I'll be exposing myself to endless ridicule here but District 13: Ultimatum is the best action film I've seen this year. Period.
Yes, it's corny. Yes, it's silly. Yes, it's outlandish and goofy. No, it's not a great piece of art..... I'll grant you all those things right up front, but what I will say is this; D13U is a nearly perfect antidote to the things Hollywood action filmmakers have been getting wrong for the past decade. It has a decidedly French flavour and even sports a little politics on its sleeve... when the action slows down enough to care. The bad corporation at the heart of movie is named Harriburton...so, as you can see, subtlety isn't a strong suit here. There's a Le Pen bad guy that runs a shadow government agency named DISS with aims to clear some D13 territory for new development. There's a decent man in the President's chair, but he's surrounded by a nest of vipers. The good guys are blanc and the bad guys are noir and ….none of that really matters.
As most will know, D13U is the sequel to District 13, the 2004 Luc Besson written-and-produced French film that introduced parkour to international audiences. Parkour, the free-running “art of flight” technique that has people leaping through the air from rooftop to rooftop and rolling out to minimize broken ankles and crushed vertebrae, made an unmistakable mark on films like Casino Royale and The Bourne Ultimatum, qualifying it as one of the decade's most influential action movies. I also love the fact that it's basically the martial art of running away. Now that's my kind of fighting style....
I'll skip trying to make any sense of the sequel's plot because it mostly doesn't. Bad guys want to nuke a walled ghetto on the outskirts of Paris. Good guys align to stop them. That's really all you need to know going in... or coming out for that matter. What is fascinating, however, is just bloody cool the overall vibe of the movie is. The score is a terrific collision of French, Arab and African hip hop that dovetails nicely with the immigrant gangs ...Gypsy, Asian, Arab, Skinhead and African...that run things in District 13. French Supercop Damian Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli) teams up again with buddy and D13 denizen Leïto (parkour progenitor David Belle) to convince the gang leaders to join forces to stop the capitalist pigs.... and nothing gets the old Gaelic blood flowing quite like an old-fashioned neo-con cookup.
D13U is two parts Escape from New York, one part Ong Bak, ten parts D13 (after all, it is a sequel) with a sprinkle of Le Haine for political good measure.. When it's firing on all cylinders, it's a bad-ass action film that doesn't take itself too seriously. The camera work and editing is that annoying sped-up/slowed-down style from the action-films-for-dummies school of cinematography, but it somehow works here. It helps that the film runs at just over 100 minutes... although truth be told, it could easily have been cut to 90 minutes (or 30 minutes for that matter). There are enough cliches floating around to make a dozen movies and it's a bit of a shame that Besson and director Patrick Allessandrin couldn't find more important roles for the excellent non-Caucasian actors that pepper this movie. Any number of these supporting players could have been written bigger parts and the fact that they're relegated to margins, blunts the film's aspirations to inclusiveness. Minor quibbles though, because I thoroughly enjoyed it.
On a final note, D13U's R-rating seems a little inappropriate given the fact that it's essentially an anti-gun movie. Leïto and Tomaso glide, jump and bounce around the ghetto mostly relying on their wits and sheer physical prowess to move around freely in the lock-down police state of D13. Notwithstanding the many ass-kickings on display here, the use of a gun represents distinctly unsportsmanlike conduct and signals weakness or evil intentions, a welcome respite from the dreary and endless gun battles at the centre of most PG-rated Hollywood action flicks these days.
Winner.... and I now love French hip hop, especially Alonzo. He can really bust a groove.