For those who’ve spent hours on YouTube viewing parkour clips, there’s nothing more exhilarating than watching l’art du déplacement, the art of moving. Parkour, which uses city streets and buildings like an obstacle course, navigates the fringes of martial arts, strength training, and acrobatics. Adorn this athleticism with the most simple of cinematic set-ups, and parkour (or free running) becomes a streetwise ballet. Anyone who has seen Casino Royale will inevitably bring up the riveting foot chase that opens the film, which features one of the founders of parkour, Sébastien Foucan. But that was a mere flash in the parkour pan. Form-over-function action producer, Luc Besson, puts the age-old Hong Kong adage to work by making the stuntman the star. Back in 2004, he recruited David Belle, one of the most influential and talented members of the movement, to take his first lead role in the French futuristic action film Banlieue 13, also known as B13 or District B13. High on action, low on plot, B13 was a hit at home and an eventual modest success abroad. A sequel was all but guaranteed, but it took them five years to make it.
District 13: Ultimatum picks up two years after the first film’s dynamic duo — by-the-book police Capt. Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli) and righteous ghetto revolutionary Leïto (played by Belle) — exposed the government that allowed District 13 to decay into ruin. A promise to restore order to the District and tear down the segregating walls that separate it from the rest of Paris has long been forgotten. Instead, corrupt politicians have set their sights on the suburb for some good old-fashioned 21st-century gentrification, planning to raze the neighborhood (apparently along with its residents) and rebuild for the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The powers that be know their plan will never fly as long as saintly Capt. Tomaso is on the streets with his nose to the ground. But before Damien can smell a rat, he’s set up and thrown behind bars. He must count on his fleet-footed buddy, Leïto, to break him out of jail and help him set the record straight. Joining forces once again, the muscle-bound bon amis grapple, punch and kick their way towards the truth.
Belle and Raffaelli thankfully reprise their roles, as Leïto and Damien respectfully, adding charisma and physical prowess to a film otherwise burdened by its lame attempts to be witty. The movie opens with Leïto still fighting the good fight for the disenfranchised residents of District 13. Caught trying to blow up the wall surrounding the district, police give chase to the man who loves to be chased. A pulse-driving cat-and-mouse run through the ghetto allows Belle to display his art with ease and elegance, leaving police in the dust or flat on their face. Tough guy Damien is given a much more flamboyant reintroduction. Deep within a cavernous nightclub, a drug lord is ogling a female dancer from his throne. Just when the stereotypical degradation of women by a film’s lens gets annoying, the scene takes a brilliant turn and reveals the dancer as our heroic detective, dressed in drag, turning a satisfying gun towards the face of the lecherous gangster. Unfortunately, the scene plays out a little too long, cutting between Damien’s made-up face and “her” impossibly buxom ass, over and over again, and draining the sequence of its momentary cleverness. Breaking free of his wig and dress, Damien displays more traditionally manly skills, fighting off baddies while protecting a Van Gogh painting. Expertly choreographed, this showdown is the shining example why Ultimatum, flawed as it is, remains entertaining.
The action fares well in the hands of director Patrick Alessandrin, who inherited the sequel after B13 director Pierre Morel moved on to bigger but not necessarily better things with Taken and From Paris with Love. Ultimatum does not subscribe to the ethos that editing creates excitement (which burdened B13) and, settling on middle-range shots, gives us space to enjoy the physical talents of not only Belle and Raffaelli, but the supporting cast as well. Major credit must go to Raffaelli, who choreographed the fights and (in a departure from the first film) steals the show from Belle and his mind-blowing parkour. Unfortunately, this can’t save the film from erratic pacing and a very overworked plot. The government makes for a placid cardboard enemy and the exposition about their dodgy maneuverings brings the film to an apathetic standstill in spots. References to Halliburton, although funny, are about five years too late, and civil unrest in Paris was an international headline that has come and gone. The original B13 was able to tap into a social pulse that now seems dead, but Ultimatum trips over misguided deviations away from what it does best, action.