District 13: Ultimatum (Banlieue 13 – Ultimatum)

Hair or no hair? Which is more badass? I can't decide!

Hair or no hair? Which is more badass? I can’t decide!

(2009) Action (Magnet) David Belle, Cyril Rafaelli, Philippe Torreton, Daniel Duval, Elodie Yung, MC Jean Gab’1, James Deano, Laouni Mouhid (La Fouine), Febrice Feltzinger, Pierre-Marie Mosconi, Johnny Amaro, Pascal D’Amato, Guy Amram. Directed by Patrick Alessandrin

Justice doesn’t come easy. It isn’t just handed to you. It must be fought for, and everything put up in risk for. Sometimes it takes time; sometimes it doesn’t come at all. But it won’t come without a fight.

The slums of Paris have become a war zone with five different gangs vying for ultimate power after the fall of a powerful gang lord. An indifferent government has essentially pulled the police out of District 13 after the events of District B13 and promises to improve things in the embattled district have fallen by the wayside with a change of administration.

Leito (Belle), an agile traceur (which is literally a practitioner of parkour) has become disillusioned with the broken promises and seeks to be a one-man agent provocateur, blowing up walls and leading cops and gangs on a merry chase in the streets of the district.

Capt. Damien Tomaso (Rafaelli) has taken down a drug lord all by his lonesome, using his martial arts skills to save an invaluable Picasso painting in the process. He goes home to his girlfriend only to wake up to an arrest warrant. Puzzled, he allows the DISS officers to take him to prison but being Tomaso he puts in a call to his friend Leito first.

Leito in the meantime has gotten hold of some damming video that shows officers of the DISS gunning down French police officers and leaving their bullet-riddled cars in District 13 for the gangs to be blamed. Walter Gassman (Duval), head of the DISS, we discover is in bed with Harriburton, an American multinational that is looking to raze District 13 and building luxury condos.

The weak-willed French president (Torreton) is inclined to give the order to evacuate the district and send in the bombs, but Leito and Tomaso have other plans. They’ll fight their way through gangs, corrupt cops and an uncaring French bureaucracy to get the President’s ear – or they’ll die trying.

Okay, that all sounds a bit preposterous – and it is – but you don’t go see an action movie because of its intricate plot do you? Well, you should – a movie with a good story well-told is always better than one without – but a lot can be forgiven due to the amazing action sequences. Producer Luc Besson, the godfather of European action films, pulls out all the stops here. The thing to remember here is that these stunts are being pulled off as you see them – no wires, no CGI. It’s pretty amazing stuff.

While neither Rafaelli or Belle are particularly great actors, they do have plenty of screen presence, enough to fill out most action star requirements. Rafaelli, a shaven head martial artist is a cross between Vin Diesel’s brooding sexuality and Jet Li’s agile grace; he is from the Clint Eastwood school of acting where lines are sparingly spoken and when they are, growled.

Belle is one of the originators of Parkour and at 35 is in marvelous shape. In District B13 his stunts dominated; Rafaelli is featured more here but when Belle is onscreen your breath is automatically held. He moves with grace and assurance, king of the jungle in an urban landscape. Both Belle and Rafaelli have enough to be action stars in the States in a just world. For now, they’re essentially objects of cult affection by discerning action junkies who don’t mind plowing through a few subtitles (although the cut released here is dubbed) to get their share of action goodness.

The plot is pretty weak and the ending aptly described by the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Amy Biancolli as a steaming pile of huh. There is some validity to the complaints about the somewhat haphazard plot points that kind of clunk up the movie but the frenetic action sequences more than make up for this. In a year where the action films have largely been lame, this gem sits in wait for discerning action fans to discover. If this sounds like you, you need to give this one a shot.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing martial arts and parkour stunts. Belle and Rafaelli are charismatic.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Falls apart in the third reel. Political satire loses something in the translation.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence, some bad language and drug usage.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: David Belle didn’t practice most of the stunts so that he could give the action a sense of freshness and improvisation so most of what you see him doing he’s doing for the very first time.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a production diary as well as a music video from French hip-hop artist Alonso.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: €13.1M on a €12M production budget; the movie probably lost money at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fast and the Furious

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Prince of Egypt

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