The original “District 13” was made in 2004 and set in Paris of the year 2010, which means if the French are going to fulfill producer/writer Luc Besson’s vision of walled up ghettos, racial and class warfare, and shirtless dudes leaping from rooftop to rooftop, they’d better get their butts in gear. “District 13” was entirely, utterly of its moment; even if problems in the real French banlieues haven’t eased, that moment has largely passed. “District 13″‘s parkour chase scenes and customized hot rod cars would look dated even if its sweeping social changes weren’t scheduled to occur two weeks ago. Yet here is a sequel, “District 13: Ultimatum,” which faithfully continues the first film’s aesthetics and story, a vision of futures past.
Surprisingly, the out-of-time quality wears well on the series. Divorcing the film from its timeliness also divorces it from its inflated sense of self-importance, freeing “Ultimatum” to have more fun with its premise than its predecessor. The sequel is only 100 minutes long, and the first 20 minutes don’t contain even a hint of a plot; Besson and director Patrick Alessandrin (replacing “Taken” filmmaker Pierre Morel) take that time leisurely reintroducing the series’ protagonists — banlieue revolutionary Leito (David Belle) and idealistic supercop Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) — in separate action sequences.
Besson and Alessandrin show off this installment’s improved sense of humor immediately in a scene that shows Damien going undercover (in drag!) to arrest a powerful mob boss. No one would ever confuse the muscular Raffaelli for a stripper, so the filmmakers cut back and forth between wide shots of a feminine body double and close-ups of the definitively masculine action hero. The effect, like something out of a Zucker brothers’ film, is hilarious. Once discovered, Damien is forced into a fight involving the rescue and protection of a priceless work of art that’s better than any of the martial arts sequences in the original film.
Morel brought a choppy editing style to the first “District 13″‘s action; he even went so far as to remove frames from impact shots to enhance the intensity of the blows. But stylish editing doesn’t necessarily equate to satisfying fight sequences. In martial arts movies, every cut is a cheat; the fewer the cuts, the more skillful the director, the performers and the choreographers. Alessandrin lets the action sequences breathe, and enables us to fully appreciate the talent of Raffaelli, who serves as his own fight choreographer.
Eventually, a sliver of a story appears, as Leito and Damien are once again put up against a ticking clock and the impending destruction of District 13. This time around, shady government officials try to wrest control of the banlieue away from its rightful occupants in order to turn the area into gentrified high-rise housing. The company that’s been hired for the construction job? Who else but Halliburton (or “Harriburton” as it’s called here). “It’s just like in Iraq!” one character remarks with righteous indignation. “Exactly,” another replies, “except they’re French.”
Obviously, this is a film that does not take itself too seriously. Which is good, because no film that takes itself seriously could get away with the things that “District 13: Ultimatum” gets away with, including a stunt set-piece where a car drives up the single most conveniently placed ramp in the history of cinema in order to drive through the upper floors of a police station. That one shot sums up the movie nicely: totally implausible, totally excessive, and yet — totally satisfying.
Parkour, the discipline of leaping, jumping, spinning and diving through one’s environment, doesn’t have nearly the cultural cache as it did in 2004, but it still provides “District 13: Ultimatum” with an endless stream of setups for impressive stunts. Our heroes get into one inescapable predicament after another — like, say, breaking into prison with no discernible plan for how to break back out — then lets them use their parkour skills to do the impossible. It’s a feat almost as impressive as making a movie about parkour seem cutting edge in the year 2010.