Although historically held in the spring, The Philadelphia Film Festival has announced a season change to the fall starting with their 2010 event. As a way of easing the transition, they held a mini-festival last weekend, cheekily calling it their 18 1/2 annual fest.
At the end of the French 2004 action film District 13, promises are made to the film’s two heroes that politicians were listening and that the walls surrounding the titular slum section of Paris in the near-future would be torn down. But politician promises being what they generally are, conditions have worsened, not gotten better over the ensuing three years. Leiot (David Belle) has decided to stop waiting on action from elected officials and bureaucrats and has started working at fulfilling their promises for them. With explosives. When it appears that District 13 gang members have murdered two police officers, Leito discovers that the gang members have been framed. But his friend on the police force detective Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli) can be no help as he has been framed and imprisoned. Breaking Damien out of prison, the tow discover that the two incidents are connected and do not bode well for the future of the residents of District 13.
Released two years before the James Bond revamp Casino Royale utilized it in its opening sequence, District 13 introduced the amazing sport of parkour to audiences, with one of its biggest practitioners and developers, Belle, in a starring role. The film followed him as he ran pell mell through the crumbling slums of District 13 , using every conceivable surface as a springboard to change direction. Director Pierre Morel’s camera could scarcely keep up and audiences were left breathless.
But where District 13 focused on Belle’s parkour skills, this sequel seems to emphasize the equally impressive martial arts skills of Raffaelli. One impressive sequence set in the back of a shady nightclub featuring him disposing of several opponents with a Van Gogh painting recalls the playfulness and precision of Jackie Chan at the height of his Hong Kong career. The sequence also features the quick repetition of certain difficult stunts from multiple angles to show the audience that it is Raffaelli’s prowess at work, not visual effects trickery. This is a recurring technique of Chan’s as well.
Keeping with the original’s style, incoming director Patrick Alessandrin’s direction is fluid, moving around the action, never getting in its way. For those who have not seen the first District 13 – And it is recommended in and of itself, though you don’t need to have seen it to enjoy this sequel – he opens the film by zooming through the walled in slums, highlighting the various ethnic factions that Leiot and Damien will have to unite. And while the movie doesn’t quite have the element of surprise that the first one did with its presentation of parkour, Alessandrin keeps things moving along at a good pace.
The characters of District 13: Ultimatum aren’t deeply drawn, but we know enough about them to make the movie work. No one is striving for redemption or some high-minded ideal that often seems artificially grafted on to Hollywood action heroes. Shot on a budget that would probably barely cover the catering bill on the latest bloated Michael Bay epic. District 13: Ultimatum is a sheer popcorn movie delight, packing more excitement and flair than much of what Hollywood has thrown into multiplexes over the past several years.