Parkour (pronounced parkoor) is “an activity in which the participant moves quickly and fluidly, by surmounting obstacles such as walls and railings and leaping across open spaces.”
Originated by stunt man and actor David Belle, parkour or “free running” combines martial arts, gymnastics and running to create a sport without limits, where athletes compete against their own ability to complete incredible stunts. I first learned about free running during a television special several years ago, and remember hearing about a film that free runners in France were creating. That film was “Banlieue 13,” a French flick about a cop and convict who pair up to save Paris’ rundown, walled-off District 13 from destruction by gang forces and government agents.
As a whole, Banlieue 13, also known as “District 13,” was a fun free-running ride, where the director and cinematographer sat back and allowed Belle (convict Leito) and fellow parkour expert and actor Cyril Raffaelli (cop Damien) to show the grace and beauty of Parkour. And in the end, the film delivered a decent twist and a quick moral lesson: no one is above the law, even the government.
In the inevitable sequel, “District 13: Ultimatum,” the new director Patrick Alessandrin chased the film style popularized by American action films, shoving the camera way too close to the action and cutting away too fast to let viewers feel the full effect of Parkour’s natural grace and beauty. Writer Luc Besson, back from the first D-13, likewise tried to make the story bigger than necessary. While still an enjoyable watch, it’s better to enter this one with the basic understanding that the action might wow, but the youtube Parkour videos are generally more impressive.
In “Ultimatum,” Leito and Damien are back three years later, after pledged government aid to D-13 has failed to change the crime-infested situation brewing there. Walter Gassman (Daniel Duval), head of the Department of Internal State Security (DISS) makes a pact with the Devil, or worse, American contract company Harriburtion (Halliburton and KBR, Inc., anyone?), to destroy D-13’s five skyscrapers and rebuild the district. The skyscrapers are the headquarters of the five ethnic gang leaders that rule the district. To spark a confrontation and give Gassman the excuse to blow up the city, DISS agents kill several police officers, drop their car into the middle of volatile D-13 and videotape the staged confrontation. The tape is then turned over to the media, and anger on both sides of the wall surrounding D-13 sparks a revolt that gives Gassman the leverage to convince France’s President (Philippe Torreton) to send in fighter pilots destroy the buildings. Damien is imprisoned on false drug charges to keep him from finding out what is going on, but a boy who inadvertently videotaped the DISS killings gets the tape to Leito. Leito frees Damien and the two uncover evidence of Gassman’s plot. They then recruit the five warring gang leaders to attack government headquarters in downtown Paris to save their district.
Spoiler alert: the film cannot be discussed without acknowledging its ending. In an awkward finish, gang members take the government headquarters building and stop Gassman. As a token of gratitude, the President promises unlimited funds to clean up the neighborhood. At that point, the gang leaders ask the President to go through with Gassman’s plan and blow their headquarters to smithereens.
The problem with this ending is that the inhabitants, while justifiably opposed to a government take-over in their district, fail to acknowledge that they are the problem. The gang leaders supply drugs to the rest of the city, and their violent lifestyle is the reason there are no good schools or family-friendly zones in the district. The idea that these leaders would turn their district over to the government to make it livable again is ridiculous, especially when they could have used their drug money to fix things the way they wanted it for years. Should we believe then that these leaders are happy to sacrifice their empires if someone else pays for the clean-up? It’s not likely, especially when the film reveals early on that hundreds of millions of Euros have already been poured into the district and it hasn’t helped.
The film’s strength is Parkour, not social commentary and the creators should to play to this strength or lose their fans in the future. That’s the ultimatum.