Before I was Nate Boss, High-Def Digest reviewer, I was Nate Boss, High-Def Digest review reader. I made a habit of basing purchase decisions on the recommendations of the review staff, especially on titles I had never seen or heard of. That is how I first heard of 'District B13' ('Banlieue 13'), the action flick featuring the Parkour "fighting" style, which was written by French marvel Luc Besson. One blind buy and viewing later, and I was left marveling. The chase sequence in 'Casino Royale' was short and effective, but it didn't hold up one iota compared to the extreme physical prowess on display from David Belle, the man credited for creating Parkour. The story was somewhat stupid and skimpy, but much like many other action flicks, it was merely an excuse for extremely intense fight scenes, and the variation on the buddy cop genre found in the film, with the acrobatic leaping and evasive tactics of Leito (Belle) and the powerful one man army fighting style of Damien (Cyril Raffaeli), left me wanting more.
Five years after the creation of the original, a sequel was made, in 'District 13: Ultimatum' (also known as 'D13:U'). A sequel that felt more like a rehash of the original, with few original bones in its body. Considering the original, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
The Paris of 2013 is the past, as it has been three years since the events that found Leito and Damien saving District 13 from government annihilation. The district, which is isolated from the rest of France by thick walls, hasn't changed much in that time, as an eccentric group of five warlords is now run varying areas. Tensions are as high as they've ever been.
After cleaning the streets on yet another undercover job, Captain Damien Tomaso is framed for heroin possession, and his desperate call to Leito to help him escape has made the free running freedom fighter a target. A frame job by crooked cops has the government ready to wipe District 13 off the map...again. The odd couple must again reteam, unravel the Department of Internal State Security's scheme, and save France, by saving the worst ghetto in the country.
Much like the repeated sequels in many horror series, this second time through is fairly redundant, almost like a greatest hits compilation. Damien's fight in the underground casino is replaced by a drug haven club, with identical results: backup that is more back than up, with numerous gangs replacing the singular one. Leito's egress from his home? Repeated, only with cops replacing thugs. The threat? Again, the same, destruction by the government, only this time, a shady subgroup of said government. With five years between films, and three within the films, is it so much to ask for something new?
'D13:U' is again short on story, thankfully, as it's stale, lame, and overly convenient. This time around, though, the politics are more American, in a sense, as the entire film feels like an Iraq War (part 2, not the much shorter original) parallel, which is probably less than coincidental. The DISS faction of the government wants to destroy an area, and remake it in their image, through their preferred contractor, Harriburton, which sounds like an Engrish iteration of Halliburton, whose ties to the Bush administration are well documented. The entire third act of the film is so thick in analogy and political statement that it almost overshadows the action.
Almost. Thankfully, 'D13:U' has one saving grace, and that's the fantastic action that may feel lifted from the original, but even with the strange sense of familiarity the antics of Leito and Damien could save damn near even the worst of plots. The complementary styles employed by the two characters are much like a meeting of the East and the West, and the result is a perfect fusion of talent and pace, with both combatants showing extreme control and premeditation in their movements, even if they appear anything but thought out. The finale may focus more on the varying populating elements of District 13, but make no mistake: the only point of this film, and its predecessor, is to kick serious ass, and wow audiences with the powerful physical displays put forth by both leads. Don't go into this expecting to be intellectually stimulated in any way, just sit back and enjoy the ride.
With a 1080p VC-1 encode (2.35:1) in hand, 'D13:U' is ready to take names, kick ass, take ass, kick names, and show off some ugly beauty, and beautiful ugliness. It's not demo material, but this little-film-that-could can sure wow em.
Colors are bright, skin tones proper (with only the occasional splotch), and tinkering (edge work or noise reduction) don't appear to have been used. Black levels are accurate, though delineation is a bit sub-par, with some crushing. Detail is solid, with nice details in each character, a menagerie of stubble, scars, age, and tattoos. Not all is well, though, as the picture can go soft in excessive SFX shots, especially the zoom shots, while random bits in the film can randomly look blurry from time to time. Noise is a problem, though it isn't extreme, and reds are too fuzzy for my tastes.
The audio for 'D13:U' is about as subtle, and delicate, as a sledgehammer to the groin. Apparently I enjoy said act, as the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix was a bumping experience, to say the least.
The disc defaults to the English track, with English Narrative subtitles. A quick switch to French, and standard English subtitles makes the experience all the more authentic (in real life, people who speak French have floating words around them in English...), and there is no loss, as each language is given the same treatment, dual lossless mixes. If only the 'Ultimate Force of Four' had this attribute, it may have actually been ultimate.
The sound design for 'District 13: Ultimatum' sounds the same the moment it starts as it does the moment it ends. In fact, there are very few times when it actually isn't uniform. By uniform, I mean loud like a screeching 'Twilight' fan getting to touch Robert Pattinson's new moon. Bass levels are amazingly intense, and constant. Even at somewhat acceptable volume levels, the thunderous, bellowing lows from the subwoofer are likely to draw a complaint or two. From neighbors, not viewers. Range is hardly stunted, as there are some screaming highs to go along with the low-as-hell lows, with explosions (that rock the house!) taking on a bit of both, to give a truly fantastic experience. Motion feels forced and somewhat clunky, the few times it is really in use.
So, with all that praise, why not a higher score? Dialogue. It can, at times, be pretty easy to hear through the bass-heavy soundtrack, but it can also be completely drowned out in a burlap sack. It gets indistinguishable at moments, and even the news broadcasts, which aren't beneath heavy music, are completely absorbed. This is a film that owners of high end audio gear will get one hell of a kick out of, don't get me wrong, and it certainly isn't a film to play in the late hours. Unless you enjoy getting noise complaints. Then, by all means, let 'er rip.
If you haven't already seen 'District B13,' what are you waiting for? Viewing the sequel without first seeing the superior original is like only watching the 'Star Wars' prequel trilogy over and over, without experiencing the story that made the second series possible. 'D13:U' is far from original, and is more a rehash than anything else, but it's still better than plenty of films made today. Belle and Raffaeli are a great duo, as Damien and Lieto kick Riggs' and Murtaugh's saggy asses without much effort. Magnolia's Blu-ray release has over-the-top audio, solid video, and an average supplement set. Fans of the original will find plenty to enjoy in this second go round.