Sure, sure, "District 9" was the critical darling of the sci-fi/genre community last year, but those who crave an injection of action into their veins knew all along that "District 13" was the cinematic destination for a kneecap-to-the-face adrenaline rush.
When "District B13" was released in 2004, it followed on the string of stylish action flicks like "Ong Bak" that combined wince-inducing stunts with a new athletic style known as parkour, a form of modern acrobatics that turns urban areas into obstacle courses.
The movie, directed by Pierre Morel and produced by Luc Besson, was short on intellect but hit the sweet spot for DVD importers craving their next action fix. And it proved that, even if he was never going to reach the artistic heights of "Leon" again, at least Besson was able to deliver slick Euro action vehicles every now and then.
As Jackie Chan would say: no fear. No stuntmen. No equal.
A lot has happened since 2004. Nearly every movie with a chase sequence has tried to incorporate some elements of parkour - even 2008's abysmal "Incredible Hulk" from fellow Besson protege Lous Letterier, which "B13" star Cyril Raffaelli contributed to. Cyril also played an evil henchman with Nightcrawler-esque agility in the tepid "Live Free and Die Hard" in 2007.
Over in Thailand, Tony Jaa managed to top the gravity-defying insanity of "Ong Bak" with not one but two amazing martial arts flicks ("The Protector," "Ong Bak 2"). It's safe to say that this particular brand of action filmmaking that was once so cutting edge has now reached Hollywood saturation.
So, as much as fans have been craving a sequel, you had to wonder: was there really a way for Besson to top himself and stay relevant with a "District 13" part 2? Lead actors Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle are a dynamic duo, no doubt, but they're no Tango & Cash; a sequel couldn't be sustained by their buddy chemistry alone. Bigger stunts, more elaborate action, a compelling storyline, and a kinetic visual style…those are the kinds of things viewers expected.
Unfortunately, Luc Besson's idea of crafting a worthy sequel here seems to be to take the same formula as the original and add a whole heaping load of CGI. Cue the collective groan from action fans everywhere.
Former director Pierre Morel is off to greener pastures - he directed the surprisingly good "Taken" and the surefire guilty pleasure "From Paris With Love," and is looking at doing a cinematic adaptation of "Dune." In his stead we have French filmmaker Patrick Alessandrin, a man I know next to nothing about but who apparently has some experience in directing French comedies. "Ultimatum" is his first film in 6 years. Are you worried yet?
I'll grant "Ultimatum" this: it looks and sounds gorgeous. The squalid beauty of a near-future Paris ghetto is brought to life by a stunning blu-ray transfer. The soundtrack features electronic/dubstep (I say that but I'm still not 100% sure what dubstep sounds like) by a French artist known as Da Octupuss, among others. It's music with a relentless, dirty groove that perfectly suits imagery of muscular dudes leaping from building to building while being chased by SWAT teams.
Where this film goes astray is its screenplay and over-reliance on computer wizardry. The movie looks like it cost $100 million to make, but I'm sure it cost a fraction of that. Tere are times when it feels like Luc Besson's sole intent with "Ultimatum" was to prove that France could produce a movie as big, dumb, and loud as any Michael Bay blockbuster. But to what end? It's hyper-edited, digitally-enhanced sound and fury…signifying nothing.
The first "D13" opened with a parkour sequence that was so exciting and well-choreographed, it guaranteed that no matter what happened the rest of the movie, the filmmakers had your attention. With "Ultimatum," it takes literally 26 minutes for the plot to even kick in. Before that we have a vaguely creepy sequence where Raffealli dresses in drag to infiltrate a drug dealer's club. Let me put it this way: he's a bit too convincing. In fact, with a wig on he looks exactly like a muscular woman - and there are a few too many close-ups of his asscrack.
Of course, any talk about "plot" would be inconsequential as long as the action sequences held up. But they're either too cute for their own good or so far-fetched it's like they were cooked up by a computer program. This time around, Raffealli handles all the martial arts sequences while David Belle goes strictly parkour. One of my favorite moments was when our heroes are surrounded on both sides by a bunch of bad guys and Raffealli says something like, "I'll take care of these guys. You go do your Spider-Man routine." THAT'S what "Ultimatum" should have been about.
But again, it lets us down. I was hoping for Cyril's fight scenes to be up close and brutal, but too often he's using props - including a Van Gogh painting and a ladder - in choreography that seemed ripped right out of Jackie Chan's work from the 80's. Been there, done that. And David Belle's urban gymnastics no longer seem as impressive since everything looks so green-screened. By the time you got to the scene where Cyril and Belle drive a car through the hallways of a police station, you feel like "Ultimatum" is a Playstation 3 game where you don't even have to press any buttons.
And I'm not even talking about the ridiculous story. You don't have to be Glenn Bleck to find the holes in this wacky far-Left fantasy that has a corrupt French military staging a fake cop killing so the President will agree to nuke District 13 and rebuild it as a suburban neighborhood for the middle class. As "Ultimatum" begins, the District has been drawn along 5 racial lines, including extremist Muslims, African warlords, the Chinese Triads, and Nazi skinheads. GUESS what brings all those folks together?
Yup, everybody puts aside their differences and teams together to try and stop the President from nuking the 5 tallest high-rises in the District and turning it into a bunch of condos. By the time you see the tall, lanky dude with "SS" and swastika tattoos all over his face raise his hand and join forces with a bunch of other ethnicities, well, if your eyes haven't rolled into the back of your head then you're not paying attention.
Again, if the action was up to par then things like this probably wouldn't matter, but "Ultimatum" just doesn't deliver the way its predecessor did. THAT SAID...wait for it, wait for it...I have to give it 3 stars simply because it looks and sounds astounding, and there was enough crazy fighting and stunts to keep me entertained for its relatively short runtime. And I can even appreciate the audaciousness of using blatant ethnic stereotypes as a means to promote racial harmony.
I'm also a huge fan of Cyril Raffaelli (as long as he's not wearing drag) ever since I saw him very nearly kick Jet Li's ass in 2001's "Kiss of the Dragon." I hope he stars in more movies where his name receives top billing - he's certainly earned it at this point. What can I say? Sometimes I'm loyal to a fault.