Over at the New York Times, Terrence Rafferty manages to work a mention of W.H. Auden into the lead of his interview with Martin Scorsese on Shutter Island, which I’ll hold my water on for now but will be getting into next week.
French filmmaker Luc Besson’s career hasn’t gone the way a lot of people might have expected, which is a fact that in and of itself likely delights Besson. After bursting onto the international scene in the mid-’80s with Subway and The Big Blue, and then making the phrase “French action film” sound not quite so silly with the equally stirring La Femme Nikita and The Professional, Besson dialed back his directorial ambitions just a bit, focusing on writing and producing in a way that would make even John Wells or Dick Wolf nod in admiration, and mentoring a new generation of French directors. While some ofhis latest efforts behind the camera have continued to prove delightfully off-kilter (animated films featuring a voice cast of Snoop Dogg, Jimmy Fallon and Mia Farrow, say), much of Besson’s work as a writer-producer conforms to the expectations of low- and middlebrow genre fare — punchy, hybrid works that trade in kinetic transport and enchantment.
All of which brings us to the Besson-scripted sequel to 2006’s District B13, the movie which first introduced parkour — or spry, urban escape, in which super-caffeinated participants surmount obstacles through perpetual motion — to Nike commercials and Jason Bourne. Directed by Patrick Alessandrin, the movie is a potent slice of cheery hokum, powered by the no-nonsense charisma of its two returning leads. Those inclined to want to see a couple white guys exercise cat-like martial arts moves against a loosely egalitarian sociological narrative backdrop will spark to the movie, and its sloppy embrace of joie de vivre.
A couple years have passed since elite undercover cop Damien Tomasso (Cyril Raffaelli) first teamed up with reformed vigilante Leito (parkour originator David Belle) to save the notorious District 13, a racially charged Parisian slum populated by violent, drug-dealing gangs and vicious killers. Besson dispenses with the conclusion of the first film with some amusingly blunt introductory text (“The government has changed, but little else has…”), and then proceeds to plunge our two protagonists back into a class-tinged struggle for equality, against a cabal of corrupt cops and elected officials conspiring to cook up civil unrest so that the five high-rises in the area in question can be razed and lucrative redevelopment contracts spread around to friends and benefactors.
After three kilos of heroin is planted in his apartment, Damien is incarcerated. He reaches out to Leito, who breaks into prison in order to break him out. Damien and Leito quickly lay hands on some incriminating evidence and then, uniting the slumlord leaders of five disparate gangs (the Arabs, blacks, Chinese, gypsies and skinheads), who rather inexplicably put aside any differences in an effort to stick it to le homme, hatch a plan to reach out to a French president (Philippe Torreton) who appears, on the outside at least, to have a humanistic streak, and sensitivity to the mass displacement and/or murder of thousands of poor.
The plot’s ticking-clock element doesn’t really make that much sense, and the mode of villainous wipe-out (a proposed nuclear air strike!) doesn’t seem all that subtle or practical. But then again, subtlety has never really been Besson’s thing. (The French company standing to benefit from all this is “Harriburton.”) He lacquers on the visual cues fairly thickly here, and indulges a pair of lazy escapes in which a hail of cops’ bullets cannot find their target. Still, even with these transgressions and a subtitled translation that sometimes appears a bit shoddy (“You want us to eat you here or to go?” reads one character’s query), one doesn’t hold too much of a grudge against the movie, since the action really needs no translation, and the actors are likeable enough to carry it along. With his thin, pinched face, the bald Raffaelli resembles a Gaellic, ass-kicking Seth Meyers, and Belle, with his shock of hipster hair, his lithe comrade in deceptively quick kicks to the face. More pitched, personal stakes (as in the first film) work best for these characters, but District B13: Ultimatum is a serviceable re-upping which works OK for those who favor underclass hand-to-hand action. (Magnolia, R, 100 minutes)