District 13: Ultimatum
Dir: Patrick Alessandrin
Here’s what worked about the original District B-13: it was as exciting and incredibly fast-paced as the sport it turned into a martial art. Plus, none of us really knew what parkour was, so it added a fresh twist on the action flick. In the years since James Bond chased a traceur (parkour athlete) around in Casino Royale, a 1200-year-old Bruce Willis dispatched one in A Die Hard Sequel and Frank Castle blew one up with a bazooka in Punisher War Zone’s best gag. As a cinematic fad, the sport of hopping over things had become a joke to everyone except Jackie Chan, who should probably sue somebody.
District 13: Ultimatum has a lot to prove. With the same slick, energetic filmmaking as its predecessor and a few new tricks up its sleeve, the movie should have reminded us just what was so special about the first one. The thing was a hit, so surely people were willing to throw money at it.
Ultimatum essentially follows the structure of the first film: meet Leïto, the ghetto-dwelling bad boy who can’t help but get into a chase scene; meet Damien, the supercop who always gets his man; District 13 is going to get exploded; the two team up to thwart it and get The Man’s foot out of their ass. However, Ultimatum’s ending is hardly as incendiary as its predecessor, as our heroes never really stick it to the Man. In fact, they come to a rather pat understanding. Pfft.
Where the film really betrays its predecessor is in its inexcusable midtempo pacing, which must be attributed to the departure of original director Pierre Morel. Under his direction District B-13 felt like an 80 minute action scene even though it wasn’t, an effect Morel carried on to his follow-up, Taken, in which it only takes about 20 minutes for Liam Neeson to land in Paris and immediately shoot seven people. The films move so fast you never question them. For some reason screenwriter/producer Luc Besson decided that District B-13 was missing scripting, and so the film takes forever to get started so that it feels like an overlong James Bond flick when it’s 20 minutes shy of 2 hours. The plot isn’t introduced until halfway through the film, and the ragtag team of District 13 denizens isn’t assembled until the last 20 minutes.
Patrick Alessandrin’s direction is fine if you ignore that he never told anyone to hurry it up in the editing room. He maintains the aesthetic and ethos of the first film, so Ultimatum, like its predecessor, is a flashy movie with stunts that eschew CG and wire-fu. He does a few instant replays when he thinks a stunt is really cool, which is possibly a dig at the similar Ong Bak, famous for (among other things) taunting the films of Luc Besson via graffitied backgrounds. The stunts, while good, hardly astonish and make you wonder if they did that for real.
As much as I’m slighting the movie its only real failure is that it settles for conventionality rather than trying to surpass the extremity of the first. While I continue to wonder what could have been, District 13: Ultimatum will surely be for most people a solid action flick.