Speed, agility, violence: Parkour, it’s not just something that gets parodied on The Office, it’s the way of the French. Rather, it is the way of building jumper turned action star David Belle and French martial artist Cyril Raffaelli, both of whom were made famous by their performances in the Luc Besson produced, Pierre Morel directed District B13. In 2004, this fast-paced, high-flying actioner took the world of genre cinema by storm, unleashing Parkour upon the world. It has since been seen in other films such as Casino Royale and Live Free or Die Hard. And if you’ve seen it in any of these movies, you know how impressive this efficient mode of obstacle navigation can be. Then again, if you haven’t seen it in District B13 or its subsequent sequel, District 13: Ultimatum, then I would argue that you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Flash forward to 2009. Director Pierre Morel has moved on to direct the Liam Neeson-led revenge hit Taken, and Luc Besson has since gone on to deliver (as both producer and writer) several badass action movies, including two more Transporter films. But Besson hasn’t forgotten about District 13, and neither have his two stars. They’re back as the Leito (Belle), the D13-born kid who’s just trying to make the slum a better place for himself and his neighbors, and Capt. Damien Tomasso (Raffaelli), the super-cop who will do anything to see that justice is served with a gracious helping of kicks to the face. This time around, we begin at the moment where the first film left off – Damien has returned Leito and his sister to D13 with the promise that the government will clean up the streets, build schools and wipe out the gangs once and for all. After a flash forward of a year, we see that the infamous slum has not changed one bit, and now the head of the French secret service has set in motion a plan that could lead the president to destroy District 13 once and for all, freeing up precious real estate and wiping out its lowly denizens.
If this story sounds familiar, it’s okay – this movie follows a very similar path as the first District 13. As a writer, Luc Besson has never been one for in-series innovation. When he delivered the sequels to The Transporter, all we got was a similar story with minor tweaks. But along with those subtle differences in narrative, we also got kicked-up action each time, something that he and director Patrick Alessandrin accomplish handily with Ultimatum. Early on, we meet Damien as he’s deep under-cover, trying to bring down a mob boss in a Chinese gambling parlor. Aside from having to see Cyril Raffaelli in a very interesting light (and wardrobe), the scene plays out much like the casino sequence in the first film. Except this time, there are twice as many bad guys and twice as many amazing shots of Raffaelli whirling around to inflict pain with his various limbs. It once again proves that Raffaelli is one of the most impressive silver screen martial artists around.
After the initial setup, the film launches into a singular race against time, in which Leito and Damien must uncover the mysterious plot that has District 13 ready to burst with civil unrest. As you can imagine, what follows is a predictable (but no less impressive) series of action sequences involving Parkour chases through the city, plenty of hand-to-hand combat and a slew of wildly tattooed, mean-as-hell gangsters. The violence is brutal, especially when we see Damien going hand-to-hand against any of his foes. The difference between this and much of the other martial arts movies that we’re seeing nowadays is the brutality. When Damien leans in and delivers a knee to the sternum of one of his attackers, the audience feels it as if they themselves have been kicked in the chest by the bald, European version of Tony Jaa. Credit goes not only to Raffaelli, who choreographs his own fight scenes, but also to cinematographer Jean-François Hensgens, who shoots it all in a very wide-frame, clean and in-your-face that draws the audience into the action. On top of that, the sound design team led by Guillaume Bouchateau brings it all home by adding the loud, booming thumps that would really exist, should you one day find yourself on the wrong end of a Damien Tomasso spin-kick. Also notable: keep an eye out for a sweet (though somewhat out of place) fight scene featuring the quite hot Elodie Yung. Let’s just say that she makes you think twice about a woman with a long pony-tail.
The first District 13 was clearly the coming out party for Parkour and its co-creator David Belle, but at its heart, Ultimatum is Cyril Raffaelli’s film. His charismatic, energetic performance delivers an all-out adrenaline rush of ass-kicking and name-taking. And even though Ultimatum’s story is painfully formulaic, producer Luc Besson and team have shifted it far enough to make it feel right. They make up for a paper-thin plot by pushing the audience back through the world of District 13 and repeatedly hitting them square in the chest with an intense string of action beats. Put simply, this is exactly the type of sequel we’ve come to expect from the Besson camp: one that does not disappoint.
The Upside: Adrenaline-filled, high-flying and brutal. A truly impressive action film that will hit you in the chest with awesome.
The Downside: A painfully formulaic narrative that is all too similar to its predecessor.
On the Side: This film was released in French theaters in February, earning $1.2 million dollars. It is also currently available in France on Blu-ray and DVD, for anyone who has a region free player and a few extra bucks for international shipping.