Friday, February 12, 2010
Back in 2004 the French action film “District B13” officially introduced audiences to the breathtaking art/sport of Parkour or free running. Now the film has spawned a sequel, “District B13 Ultimatum” (opening February 12 at Reading’s Gaslamp Stadium 15 Theaters and if you are a myKPBS Film Club member log in to get a discount coupon for the film).
In 2004 I was given a DVD screener for “District B13.” I popped it into my player in the wee hours of the morning to check it out and within minutes my jaw had dropped to the floor. The opening action sequence was so fresh, so deliriously fun that I ran into my 12-year-old son’s room and woke him up at 2 in the morning and told him he had to get up to see something. So my poor blurry-eyed son dutifully got up and let me show him the opening sequence. He was impressed but asked if he could please go back to bed. Well there’s nothing in “District B13 Ultimatum” to match the rush of its predecessor but it’s more fun than any of the American made action films currently playing in theaters.
Tagging the sequel with “Ultimatum” makes it sound like a Bourne rip off or a video game. The latter is probably the more accurate. The sequel picks up literally with the end of the first film. In fact, the final scene of the first movie is the opening of “Ultimatum.” The problem with this is that the scene has French undercover cop Damien (stuntman-actor Cyril Raffaelli) and reformed thug Leito (Parkour co-founder David Belle) affirming their friendship outside the Paris ghetto known as District B13, and Leito’s sister affirming her interest in Damien. Jump to three years later and suddenly the sister is gone and Damien is with some other chick. So why bother to remind us of the sister when she will play no part in the film? But then logic is not really this film’s strong point and it never pretends to be a logical or realistic film so why bother taking it to task for such petty annoyances.
So as we pick up the story, District B13 is still a troubled ghetto, Damien is still an undercover cop, and Leito is still fighting crime and corruption in his neighborhood. But now there is a new set of baddies, a mix of corporate/government types that are in the midst of some covert schemes to make money off the demolition of the District B13 area. So Damien and Leito must pair up again to fight evil.
Pierre Morel, the director of the first film, left France to direct Hollywood films like “Taken” and “From Paris with Love.” Too bad. His American films don’t have the energy or flair of “District B13,” and “Ultimatum” could have used his experience. But now the reins have been passed to relative newcomer Patrick Alessandrin. Alessandrin doesn’t have Morel’s knack for action. He doesn’t understand that filming Parkour action is much like filming a Gene Kelly dance – the less you do the better it looks. Wide shots with no edits often work best because that approach highlights the amazing athleticism and skill of both Kelly’s dance style and Parkour action.
But “District B13 Ultimatum” picks up the pace and settles into a more effective action style as it progresses and ultimately delivers a fun ride. Raffaelli gets to dazzle us with a couple of cleverly staged and impressively choreographed fights, and Belle displays his physical prowess in his chases. Both Raffaelli and Belle may be cast more for their physical skills than their acting abilities but both prove immensely likable on screen. For added fun there’s a tattooed woman (Dany Verissimo looking lethally attractive) with a bladed long braid that joins forces with them for a massive final battle.
The film, scripted again by Luc Besson, takes some swipes at America. The evil corporation bears a name strikingly similar to Haliburton, and the French president is set up in sharp contrast to George Bush. This French commander in chief resists the advice from cabinet members and staff to engage in pre-emptive strikes and actions that would ultimately make money for businessmen, and instead speaks up for the rights of citizens and the obligation governments have to protect their citizens. He’s made to look like a strong leader who thinks about his citizens’ rights even if the citizens in question might be from the lower classes or even criminal class.
“District B13 Ultimatum” (in French with English subtitles and rated R for some violence, language and drug material) isn’t the jaw-dropper that the first film was but it still delivers solid, high-energy genre fare. And considering what’s playing right now it might be the best choice out there.
Companion viewing: “District B13,” “Casino Royale” (for Parkour chase with the sport’s other founder Sebastien Foucan), “Ong Bak” (for some Thai style Parkour)