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 Video, and Audio
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 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
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.