Back in 1990, French filmmaker Luc Besson wrote and directed La Femme Nikita, a hyperactive shoot-‘em-up with enough real dimensions and pathos to put its American counterparts to shame. In 1994, he made his first American film, Leon (aka The Professional), and proved again that with the application of intelligence and a touch of heart, the action movie could be more than just shit blowing up. But in the years since, he’s spent a considerable amount of time (primarily as a writer/producer) rolling those notions back, seemingly attempting to show that, whether in America or back home in France, he can spit out as many mindless action vehicles as any no-talent music video director. They may come to us from abroad and have subtitles on them, but there’s no mistaking his recent efforts for art.District 13: Ultimatum is written and produced by Besson and directed by Patrick Alessadrin, and is a sequel to the 2004 effort District B13; this one’s getting a much wider release than it’s predecessor, and a slightly different title, presumably to fool a few poor saps into thinking it’s a sequel to Neill Blomkamp’s District 9. The original film (unseen by me) was the story of an undercover cop and a good-hearted crook infiltrating a gang within the government-imposed walled ghettos of 2010 Paris. This one jumps ahead a few years (so it’s still in the future!), as the duo reteams to stop a nefarious plot by government officials to wipe District B13 out for good.
That’s about all you need to know about the plot, which functions primarily as a clothesline on which to hang the picture’s succession of action and martial arts sequences. The story is simultaneously compelling and utter nonsense—maybe I’m thick, but why does Leito go to all that trouble to elude the police if he’s going to turn himself in during the very next scene? (Is it a question of logistics?) You don’t buy it for a second, but you certainly don’t lose interest either. The movie does get off to a bit of a rough start—the tone of the early scenes has the kind of ugly joylessness of an early 90s Tony Scott movie, all full of empty thrills and nasty people, but it recovers from that fairly quickly (thanks mainly to a clever extended bit in which the undercover cop uses an original Van Gogh painting as a fight prop).
The big action beats are well-executed (Leito’s chase across the project rooftops is thrilling), though Alessadrin is particularly egregious about staging densely populated fight scenes where everyone is polite enough to wait their turn. I’m sure it’s more dramatic to have Damien take on a dozen of his fellow officers and pick them off one by one because they’re such good sports about it, but it’s a little more likely that they’d clobber him all at once and then tase the shit out of him. Some of the confrontations are just empty style, like the scene where the half-dressed female Asian crime lord stops to but in her earbuds so she can have the proper music while she dispatches a slew of guards utilizing the knife in her swinging ponytail. That’s not, as they seem to think, winking fun; it’s just self-conscious silliness (and yet another scene nearly ruined by the obnoxious, unlistenable techno score).
Though some may be lost in translation, the dialogue is universally terrible (I’m thinking particularly of the part where the heads of the D13 gangs, a kind of United Nations of thugs, solemnly explain to the French president that they’re all a family), and the lack of big explosions to match the turn of the final scene is a bit of tease, to put it politely. There’s no questioning the energy and momentum of District 13: Ultimatum; it hurls itself from one breathless action scene to the next with reckless abandon, and many of them do land. It’s as big and loud as any Michael Bay film, though certainly with a modicum of additional wit and storytelling acumen.