District B13 is the worst slum in France, so bad that the government has closed all the schools and police stations, and built a wall around it to keep the vermin inside. Of course, any group of 2 million people is bound to have a few good apples, and one of them is Leito (David Belle), who steals a suitcase full of coke and destroys it in order to get it off the street. This attracts the attention of the drug-dealing gangster Taha (Bibi Naceri) and his faithful henchman K2 (the late Tony D'Amario), who kidnap Leito's sister (Dany Verissimo) and get Leito thrown in prison. A few years later, a dirty bomb with a 24-hour timer ends up in Taha's hands, and the police send in Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli) to go and retrieve it, with Leito in tow as his local tour guide.
It was a total fluke that I happened to catch District B13 in theaters back in 2005. Back then, there was some YouTube-like website (the name of which is lost to me now) on which you could click through their video gallery in order of upload, and on one seriously boring evening, that's exactly what I was doing. Buried somewhere in the middle of a hundred extreme sport crashes and two hundred amateur comedy sketches, I was treated to the entire opening chase sequence from the first film, and despite the fact that it was in French with no subtitles, it easily captured my attention, and I set about using my internet detective skills to find out the movie's title. A few months later, the movie happened to be opening in US theaters on a weekend I was free, and an equally by-chance promotion through a liquor company for a free movie ticket allowed me to go and see the rest of it.
Having seen it several times since that impromptu theatrical showing, I have to admit that District B13 has plenty of flaws that I didn't see then, but it's still an effective, fun little movie filled with entertaining banter, well-choreographed action sequences, and a handful of dizzying parkour stunts. One of my friends complained up and down about the dialogue when he saw the film, and admittedly, there's a large helping of on-the-nose speeches about liberty and justice that might grate on people's nerves. For me, though, the back-and-forth between Belle and Raffaelli (not to mention between Belle and Naceri, or Naceri and D'Amario) is all pretty great, which can likely be credited to the fact that the very funny Naceri helped producer Luc Besson out with the screenplay. As far as action, we have Raffaelli taking care of business in an underground casino (the film's biggest setpiece), as well as that nimble opening I spied online, in which Belle escapes his apartment complex.
The main problem with most martial arts movies I've seen over the years is that most martial artists are generally cut out to be stuntmen and not actors, and the plots are usually an excessively simplistic clothesline on which to hang the stunt sequences. In particular, Tony Jaa is a great example of a guy blessed with the gift of cracking skulls, but whose movies can be the cinematic equivalent of brain freeze between the bloodshed. District B13 fares much better, but on repeated viewings, it's clear that there's not a whole lot to the movie aside from Belle and Raffaeli. There's also chase scene later in the film that admittedly doesn't do much for me (too much slow-motion jumping off of cars and not enough fighting back), and the last two fights are a bit underwhelming (neither feels climactic enough), but all in all, it's a pretty breezy ride.
District 13: Ultimatum (which inexplicably drops the "B" even though District 9 came out in the interim) picks up a few years later, and everyone is back to their old tricks. Leito plants bombs on the slum wall that still stands despite promises to tear it down, and Damien is busying himself with more extensive undercover work (although I don't quite believe he could have remained inconspicuous for months at a time this time through). All in all, it looks like the world has returned to its old routine until Damien finds himself arrested for a crime he didn't commit, and the unprecedented murder of policemen in District 13 brings the government and slum inhabitants to the brink of an all-out war.
I wasn't hearing great things about Ultimatum, and it's true that this sequel not only follows pretty much the same beats (particularly at the beginning: a chase with Leito switching thugs for cops, and a case with Damien using a club instead of a casino), but also repeats most of the same problems. The political criticism in the screenplay is about as on-the-nose as you can possibly imagine (fellow DVDTalker Rohit Rao has already pointed out the blatant use of "Harriburton"; I'd like to add that the movie's villain, played by Daniel Duval, is named "Gassman"), everything still feels a bit insubstantial to merit a full-fledged feature, and a satisfying "final fight" is once again missing in action. That said, the good things about the original are also status quo, and there is a tweak or two to the overall package that I definitely appreciated.
First, I was happy to see that the new President (Philippe Torreton) isn't corrupt, but rather limited in his options. The big plot conflict in Ultimatum is that District 13 hasn't gotten any better than it was at the end of District B13, but it's clear that the President genuinely wants to help the slum's inhabitants rather than wishing it away. While the aides and commanders surrounding him try to convince him that firing missiles into the high-rises are the only option, he carefully and compassionately considers the line between good and necessary evil, and his principles, like those of the main characters, stay strong even in the face of immediate danger. This air of honor and cooperation also spreads to the gang leaders in the banlieue, like the tattooed Tao (Elodie Young), whose split ends are sharper than you'd imagine, and an enthusiastic gun-lover named Little Montana (Fabrice Feltzinger), who show up, among others, to help Leito and Damien stop the aforementioned "Gassman" from getting what he wants.
Another worry about the follow-up was that the departure of Taken and District B13 director Pierre Morel to American shores would be a problem, but Patrick Alessandrin is a perfectly capable replacement, willing to let the stunts stand rather than insistently cutting in on them. He's hounded by a few budget CGI shots, but on the whole, there's more than a fair share of brutal "oohs" and "aahs" in the sequel to make it worth the investment for fans of the first movie. The club scene sticks a priceless painting in Raffaeli's hands as an additional obstacle, and there's an awesome, extended prison break sequence that takes up the whole middle of the movie. The weakest sequence, which is still good, is a reheating of the rooftop escape from the original, and while the ending can't quite pull off an idea in which entire gangs of parkour-ready combatants swarm the President's base of operations, it's a nice try anyway. It's too bad there isn't a spot for Verissimo's character Lola to come back (she only appears in a snippet of footage from the original), and it's truly saddening that D'Amario passed away before this movie was made, but maybe a third District 13 -- warranting another Blu-Ray "collection" with all three films, no doubt -- can fix at least one of those problems.
The artwork for the District 13 Collection is exactly what you'd expect: the cover artwork for the individual releases, slimmed up and framed in a border with the overall package title at the top. The front cover splits the two straight down the middle vertically, while the back cover opts for horizontal top/bottom splitting. The Viva Elite case has no booklet, with the two discs sitting on either side. Since this package came out alongside District 13: Ultimatum, I think it's safe to assume the stand-alone and box set discs are identical, but in case you're deeply concerned, I can also confirm that the District B13 disc included appears identical to the old one.
The Video, and Audio
Both films are presented in 2.35:1 1080p widescreen transfers, the first using the MPEG-2 codec, the second using VC1. Neither are bad, but both seem a touch lacking. The first film was obviously prepped just before HD was a major home video market, and while the added resolution reveals some details that weren't there in standard definition, the presence of jagged edges and occasional smoothness (resembling DNR, but more likely a basic lack of available detail in the existing transfer) put a limit on how good the movie can actually look. Again, lest anyone misunderstand, it's not like it looks bad, but it's running at 85% instead of 100%. The sequel looks better, but it's hard to tell if the contrast is excessively cranked thanks to a Blu-Ray technician with a twitchy trigger (or knob) finger, or because Alessandrin and cinematographer Jean-Francois Hensgens wanted it that way.
The audio is basically the same story, although the two films' DTS-HD Master Audio tracks are closer to equal in quality than the picture. It may be my imagination, I felt the hits a little more thoroughly when watching the sequel, but both of them feature some pretty great bass and subwoofer action as well, thanks to the deep, thudding beats of DA. Octopusss' score. The first film also comes with a 5.1 Dolby Digital EX track, and English tracks in the same formats, as well as English captions for the hearing impaired and Spanish subtitles. The sequel only bothers with DTS-HD Master Audio for both languages, and throws on the option for English subtitles vs. English captions (something I always appreciate).
"The Making of District B13" (54:46) is a loose, informative look at the making of the movie with the cast and crew that does a great job of hitting all the important bases thanks to scads of interesting B-roll and rehearsal footage, and very good interviews from those involved. Well worth a watch for anyone who likes the movie. The only other two extras are an extended version of the casino fight scene (2:19), which should have just stayed in the movie whole -- seriously, why cut even a second of great action from an action movie, particularly since the pacing of the clip seems just fine -- and disposable outtakes (2:54).
The only automatic trailer here is a spot for HDNet, which, ironically, is presented in SD, as are all the bonus features. Trailers for The World's Fastest Indian and The Lost City can be accessed under the special features menu. No trailer for District B13 is included.
District 13: Ultimatum
"Making of District 13: Ultimatum (26:34) is basically done in the same style as the documentary for the original, but less "first-timer" enthusiasm and a bizarre lack of focus on the stunts mean this piece is more middle-of-the-road. (More rehearsal footage, if there were any, would have helped.) It's aided by a series of Production Diaries (34:32), which probably appeared on the internet, and although they're even more simple and surface-level, and cull from the same B-roll footage as the central documentary, they're basically low-key, lightly entertaining fluff, the best bits being a short look at Raffaelli's big fight scene with the painting, and a blink-and-you'll-miss-it surprise appearance from a familiar face. Next time, it'd be nice if someone could lop off all but the first intro and last outro so that I didn't have to watch them 20 times, but that's a small nitpick. Finally, "HDNet: A Look at District 13: Ultimatum" (4:43) finally arrives at that familiar level where the material is so surface and glib, it's completely skippable.
This time, a whole reel of perfectly good deleted and extended scenes (9:33) are next, which, again, seem like they could have stayed in the finished film (whoever thought the 101-minute film couldn't support an additional five minutes of action was wrong), and the package is finished off with a music video (3:35) for Déterminé by Alonzo, which uses Lil Jon as a background sample. Automatic trailers for Red Cliff, The Warlords, and Ong Bak 2: The Beginning play before District 13: Ultimatum's main menu, as well as a spot for HDNet/HDNet Movies. No trailer for District 13: Ultimatum is included. All of the extras, aside from the trailers and "HDNet First Look" are presented in SD. The disc also offers BD-Live connectivity, but my internet was down at the time I tried to test it, and I doubt the portal leads to anything mind-blowing.
Neither of the District 13 films are classics, but they're fun imports that should please action lovers who don't mind reading subtitles instead of listening, and who can shrug off a touch of heavy-handed preachiness and sequelitis. At the heart of both are Belle and Raffaelli, who are not only skilled performers, but make a charismatic, likable team, and thanks to them, I'd be perfectly happy to see at least one more outing with Leito and Damien. In the meantime, this convenient packaging of both films is a one-stop shop if you don't already own the original (or the sequel, I guess), so if you are one of those people, consider this 2-disc Blu-ray set recommended, even with the minor nitpicks regarding the original's transfer.
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