District 13: Ultimatum (Patrick Alessandrin, 2009)

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Or Banlieu 13: Ultimatum, if you prefer, since this is a French movie.

This is a sequel, so a few words on what’s come before. In the first film, a no-nonsense cop Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli) and petty thief Leito (David Belle), both possessed of superhuman agility and fighting prowess reluctantly team up to prevent a ‘dirty bomb’ from being launched from the eponymous District 13, a wall-enclosed and ghettoised district of Paris, left to rot by corrupt and heartless government and in the grip of gangsters and warlords. At the end of the film, the grateful and shamed government agrees to pull down the wall and re-integrate the District into the rest of society.

This film picks up three years later and nothing has changed, for the better at least. The government has reneged on its promises and District 13 is worse than ever, with the warlords even stronger, though divided on ethnic lines and dealing drugs to the outside world through corrupt agreements with police. The heads of the army and a special unit of police, DISS, agree to corruptly plot the utter destruction of the district in order both to assert an authoritarian control over its dissident elements and to hand over prime real estate to a property company (rather crudely named “Harriburton”) at a knockdown price, pocketing bribes themselves and also delivering a new district of middle-class voters in the prettified new version of the district. The president, a beleaguered but noble figure, is kept in the dark as the police kill some of their own and dump the bodies in amongst the gangs in order to manufacture evidence of cop-killing among the gangs and trigger a war between gangs and police that will justify their ethnic cleansing. It is up to Damien and Leito, now friends, to uncover the plot, unmask the plotters and to save the District.

The first film was great fun. Its politics, plotting, dialogue and acting were all patchy but the chase and fight sequences were spectacular, both leads being leading experts in Parkeur. If you’ve seen a totally enthralling chase where those taking part bounce up, over and down buildings in an implausibly, yet clearly real, agile manner, chances are Belle or Raffaelli were involved, since the world of Parkeur comprises few people who can really deliver at this level. But Luc Besson co-wrote the first film and wrote this one on his own, and all the worst traits of Besson’s writing are evident here. Even at his best, Besson is style over substance and this film is crass, absurd and dull whenever the leads aren’t running or hitting things – and they don’t do nearly enough of either. Even when they do, there is an element of it feeling forced, probably because the writer and director haven’t invested enough feeling of genuine threat for us to care. For anyone who enjoys action-adventures, watch the first film – give this one a miss.

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