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HTF Blu-ray Review: DISTRICT 13: ULTIMATUM



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#1 of 5 OFFLINE   Michael Reuben

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Posted April 23 2010 - 03:06 PM

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 District 13: Ultimatum (Blu-ray)
 
  
Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment
Rated: R
Film Length: 101 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: VC-1
Audio: French, English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Subtitles: English; English SDH; Spanish
MSRP: $34.98
Disc Format: 1 50GB
Package: Keepcase
Theatrical Release Date: Feb. 18, 2009 (France); Feb. 5, 2010 (U.S.)
Blu-ray Release Date: Apr. 27, 2010
 
 
 
Introduction:
 
The original District B13 was more influential than your average 21st Century French-language film. One of its stars, David Belle, is a founder and leading practitioner of “parkour” (or “freerunning”), and the film was a showcase for both Belle and parkour. Anyone who knew District B13 probably cracked up (I certainly did) during the elaborate construction site chase near the beginning of Casino Royale, because it was such an obvious lift. The film also launched the career of its director, Pierre Morel, who went on to make Taken and From Paris with Love (but didn’t return for the sequel).
 
Luc Besson produced and co-wrote District B13. As he’s shown with the Transporter films, Besson is not one to pass up a franchise opportunity. A sequel was inevitable, and thus we have District 13: Ultimatum. Magnolia has provided a better treatment on Blu-ray than it gave the first film, which is ironic, because the original is a superior movie.
 
 
 
The Feature:
 
Three years after the conclusion of District B13, the government has kept none of its promises. The fictional district remains a slum, walled off from the rest of Paris and dominated by gangs. The crusading Leïto (Belle) keeps trying to blow holes in the wall, to the dismay of both the cops and the local crime lords.
 
Capt. Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli) is still a supercop. His latest assignment is taking down a Chinese kingpin operating out of a heavily fortified nightclub. It’s one of the film’s most elaborate sequences, and Jackie Chan would be proud of it. Even Chan never tried choreographing a fight sequence with an original van Gogh as the key prop.
 
Nefarious forces are at work (aren’t they always?). A large corporation called Harriburton (no, really!) has identified the land occupied by District 13 as perfect for development, if only those pesky inhabitants could be cleared away. The company enlists the aid of a quasi-military police unit known as “DISS” and commanded by Walter Gassman (Daniel Duval), whose Germanic name is an instant tipoff that he must be a villain. Gassman’s men fabricate a violent confrontation between the police and District 13's residents, which Gassman then uses to persuade the current President (Philippe Torreton) that drastic action is the appropriate remedy. In this instance, “drastic” means leveling the place, so that the District can be rebuilt and repopulated with nice, middle class people. (This is no exaggeration. Gassman comes right out and says it.)
 
Knowing Damien Tomaso’s reputation for honesty, Gassman has him framed and jailed while he’s doing Harriburton’s dirty work. But Tomaso manages to get a message to his old friend, Leïto, who breaks him out of jail in a coordinated display of the exceptional agility we’ve come to expect from these two stuntmasters. Together, Damien and Leïto track down evidence of Gassman’s plans. (This being the digital age, it’s all on hard drives and memory cards.) Then they recruit a rag-tag army of rival gangs from District 13 to stop Gassman’s plans. But crowds are already being marched out of the District to destinations unknown. Are Leïto and Damien too late?
 
D13:U contains many of the same elements that made its predecessor fun to watch. Belle and Raffaelli are extraordinary athletes, and one of the best parts about watching their stunts is the realization that nearly all of it is done without wires, effects or doubles. The roles of Leïto and Damien have been tailored to their abilities as actors, and, as the extras on the disc confirm, the two athletes have an easy rapport that translates effectively to the screen and gives their work an authentic “buddy movie” vibe. As in the first film, they’re surrounded by a colorful cast, including Tao (Elodie Yung), the female Chinese gang leader whose hair is as lethal as her fists, and Molko (MC Jean Gab'), the leader of unspecified African origins, who’s fond of Leïto but would shoot him without a moment’s regret if business required it. The production values are first-rate, and the editing is crisp and efficient.
 
So why does the film fall short of its predecessor? I think Besson’s script for D13:U makes a fundamental mistake by situating most of the action outside the titular District. The original District B13 began with a premise much like that of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York: What would happen to a city that was walled in and left to its own devices? As in Carpenter’s film, the society cut off from the rest of the world came to be ruled by criminals, and much of District B13's charge came from exploring the urban Wild West that Leïto was trying to clean up.
 
The opening of D13:U appears to promise something similar, as the CGI-assisted camera swoops and prowls through the streets and alleys of the District, but it’s false advertising. The bulk of the action takes place elsewhere. Even when Leïto and Damien head back to District 13 to recruit their attack force, they don’t stay there, because the object of attack is police headquarters in the heart of Paris. The more the film moves away from the District, the more it becomes a generic action movie. Even the flamboyant residents of the District lose some of their distinctive character once they leave their natural habitat. Instead of being part of a strange, new landscape, they’re just eccentric. To get a sense of the effect, imagine how Escape from New York would have played if Snake Plissken had quickly struck an alliance with the Duke of New York, and the rest of the film had involved storming Police Headquarters on Liberty Island. There might have been some good action, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting.
 
As for the film’s end, you really have to wonder what Besson was thinking when he wrote it. Let’s just say that scripting a third film will require fancier footwork than anything Belle and Raffaelli have managed so far.
 
For fans of District B13, the sequel is worth viewing, simply for the opportunity to see Damien and Leïto in action again. For the casual viewer, stick with the first film.
 
 
 
Video:
 
Magnolia has provided a crisp, clear transfer with vibrant, saturated colors and excellent detail throughout. There are several critical night scenes in D13:U, and these confirm that the disc’s black levels are appropriate to bring out essential shadow detail. I didn’t see any evidence of noise or other digital artifacts, nor did I see any motion artifacts, which is especially important in a film with so many fast-moving action scenes. There is nothing to fault in the transfer.
 
 
 
Audio:
 
The disc defaults to its dubbed English track, but I selected the original French language track, because, to my great relief, Magnolia included proper English subtitles. Anyone who has viewed Magnolia’s Blu-ray of District B13 is familiar with the company’s inexplicable decision to include only English SDH subtitles, so that a viewer wishing to listen to the original soundtrack but not fluent in French must also endure on-screen narration of every nonspoken sound. Magnolia never acknowledged this omission as a defect, even though the DVD of District B13 did include separate English and English SDH subtitles.
 
Well, so does the Blu-ray of D13:U, which means that I could happily ignore the English dub and select the French original. Both are presented in DTS-HD MA 5.1
 
The DTS lossless track is aggressive and even overbearing, with a rap-dominated score and appropriately loud sound effects for gunfire, explosions and body blows. The track is immersive in the sense that it buries you in the music and the bass batters you into submission, but I wouldn’t say that it puts you into the middle of an environment. For example, when Damien moves among the various rooms of the nightclub where he is working undercover, you don’t get a sense of different aural terrains, which is what a sophisticated sound design would convey. It’s a serviceable track for an action film, nothing more.
 
 
 
Special Features:
 
Making of District 13: Ultimatum (SD; enhanced for 16:9) (26:34). This piece features interviews with director Patrick Alessandrin, stars Belle and Raffaelli and other assorted cast members, plus a fair amount of location and on-set footage. It’s reasonably entertaining but doesn’t give you any feel for the mechanics of the filmmaking process. Notably missing in action: writer-producer Besson.
 
Production Diary (SD; enhanced for 16:9) (34.32). These are nineteen individual episodes, each introduced by Raffaelli. They appear to have been created for either television or web broadcast. Each is taken from a day of filming, as the production moves from Belgrade (where the set for District 13 was created) to Paris (where the rest of filming occurred). Some of the footage was recycled in the “Making of District 13: Ultimatum” featurette discussed above.
 
Music Video (SD; enhanced for 16:9) (3:35). The video is for “Déterminé” by Alonzo, which is used in the film.
 
Deleted and Extended Scenes (SD) (2:35:1, windowboxed) (9:22). All of these are extended or omitted fight scenes.
 
HDNet: A Look at District 13: Ultimatum (HD) (4:43). The usual promotional piece that HDNet runs concurrently with a Magnolia film release. If my hearing doesn’t deceive me, the narration is by reviewer Robert Wilonsky. Wilonsky’s accolades for the film are somewhat undercut by his obvious lack of familiarity with it – he begins by declaring that it takes place “five years” after the first film, not three.
 
Trailers. At startup the disc plays trailers for Red Cliff, The Warlords, Ong Bak 2: The Beginning and HDNet. These can be skipped with the chapter forward button and are separately available under the Special Features menu.
 
BD-Live. It’s odd that Magnolia continues to include a link for BD-Live on its Blu-rays, since it still hasn’t gotten around to setting up a BD-Live site.
 
 
 
In Conclusion:
 
Now that Magnolia has tacitly acknowledged that a film like D13:U deserves a proper set of English subtitles, it’s time to go back and reissue the earlier, superior District B13 the way it should have been done. How about it, folks?
 
 
 
 
 
Equipment used for this review:
 
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub

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#2 of 5 OFFLINE   Edwin-S

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Posted April 23 2010 - 07:39 PM

He mustn't be taking things too seriously. Let's see a German named Gassman = gasman. Wow, nothing too subtle about that.

Edit: I'll second that request on B13. 
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#3 of 5 OFFLINE   Josh Dial

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Posted April 24 2010 - 12:37 AM



Quote:
Originally Posted by Michael Reuben 

 Anyone who knew District B13 probably cracked up (I certainly did) during the elaborate construction site chase near the beginning of Casino Royale, because it was such an obvious lift.
 
For what it's worth, both sequences you refer to were designed by real-life friends and founders of parkour, Sébastien Foucan (Bond) and David Belle (D13), so it's probably more the case of the sequence being thought up by both long before both films were made :)


#4 of 5 OFFLINE   Michael Reuben

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Posted April 24 2010 - 01:56 AM



Quote:
Originally Posted by Josh Dial 



For what it's worth, both sequences you refer to were designed by real-life friends and founders of parkour, Sébastien Foucan (Bond) and David Belle (D13), so it's probably more the case of the sequence being thought up by both long before both films were made :)
 
Obviously Foucan designed the sequence for Casino Royale (and played the guy Bond chases). But without District B13 -- which was first released before the script for CR was completed, Martin Campbell was attached to direct and Daniel Craig was picked to play Bond -- I doubt it would have occurred to anyone to seek out Foucan or include a parkour sequence.

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#5 of 5 OFFLINE   Josh Dial

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Posted April 25 2010 - 05:39 PM



Quote:
Originally Posted by Michael Reuben 




Obviously Foucan designed the sequence for Casino Royale (and played the guy Bond chases). But without District B13 -- which was first released before the script for CR was completed, Martin Campbell was attached to direct and Daniel Craig was picked to play Bond -- I doubt it would have occurred to anyone to seek out Foucan or include a parkour sequence.
Definitely.  I just mentioned it because you seemed to use "obvious lift" pejoratively, when it was most likely an homage :)