In Paris, 2016, you learn at the start of District 13 Ultimatum (Banlieue 13 – Ultimatum), “The government has changed, but nothing else has.”
The government has changed all right. Now the president (Philippe Torreton) is essentially decent, ill-informed but also disinclined to blow up neighborhoods just because they’re impoverished. Still, he’s surrounded by devotees of the Shock Doctrine, just like the administration in Pierre Morel’s first version of this movie, 2004’s District 13 (Banlieue 13). The aptly named Gassman (Daniel Duval) means to destroy the district — again — in order to rebuild it. He has plans for a shopping mall, like the ones in America, where “you can buy everything you want.” And he has a contractor at the ready, an outfit called Harriburton. No, D13 Ultimatum is not subtle.
It is, instead, boisterous and noisy and in its way, joyous, its political backdrop merely an occasion for more parkour. Again, the exceedingly lively heroes are Leïto (David Belle), still living in D13, and Damien (Cyril Raffaelli), a cop operating in the city outside. Again, they bounce off buildings and catapult down stairways, their acrobatics breathtaking and their friendship entertaining enough. Damien, a much-lauded super cop (re-introduced here as he takes out a slew of villains, slamming and mashing them while protecting a priceless Van Gogh painting), is arrested by other, less super, cops. They bust through his apartment door, plant a pack of heroin, and haul him off to a basement prison, where the handcuffed Damien takes a moment to pin his guards to the ground and hold them with his legs, so he can use a cell phone to call Leïto’s answering machine: “If you can come get me, that would be cool.”
Yes it would. After making his own daring and extremely athletic escape from a horde of bad agents, Leïto arrives at the prison to free his best friend, whereupon they discover the vast and sometimes fast-moving plot to blow up D13. The formula demands that again and again, they thwart the thugs and cops sent to kill them, each time escaping in a flurry of outrageous gymnastics. Following yet another frustrating encounter with Damien, his adversary calls in to headquarters: “He’s incredibly agile.”
Heading back inside the ghetto, the boys seek out Tao (Elodie Yung), languid leader of the local Chinese gang and apparently influential enough to convince the district’s other four gangs (skinheads, Muslims, blacks, and, apparently, wide-eyed lunatics) to join together against the invaders. (You might consider this a revisionist Sunni Awakening, absent the pay-off and rejecting the occupation per se.) Introduced as she’s slurping down noodles, her long limbs arrayed over a desk and chair, Tao is at once awkward and self-assured, a standard sexy daydream who will in a few minutes be breaking men’s faces.
If she’s not exactly “developed,” as a character, Tao is strikingly perverse: when she takes her turn at beating down a crowd of cops, she does so while wearing an iPod and a long braid that sports a slashing blade at its end. Rendered with the usual slow- motion, her fight scene is less poetic than weird, at once profound, enraged — and not parkour.
That is, Tao’s decidedly exotic appearance in D13 Ultimatum presents another sort of athletic, graceful, and sort-of inspired resistance to corporate globalization. Her set-piece is over in seconds, a time-out from the white boys’ continuing action (she literally tells Leïto and Damien to move on, while she takes care of her business). Her seeming sensual pleasure in mayhem is different from their more pragmatic, repetitive, and energetic leaping about. Even when they stop to fight, breaking limbs and flipping bodies through whatever glass surface is handy, the boys function with a sense of mission, headed toward a next encounter. Tao, by contrast, savors the pain she inflicts: nothing practical about it.
True, Tao features in only a precious few minutes of D13 Ultimatum‘s running time. And true, she has little to say about how the mission will be resolved or what its aims may be (except for agreeing to save the district). She’s in place to look slinky and kinky, to play the Asian Chick’s part. As she helps to make the coalition against the corporation-government look diverse, Tao embodies the contradiction at the heart of the D13 franchise, fiercely independent and wholly appropriated.