Most American movie audiences discovered parkour in the breathless introductory action scene of 2006’s Casino Royale. Part extreme sport, part physical discipline, parkour turns any urban neighborhood into a high-speed obstacle course for graceful climbs, vaults, landings and hopefully no fractures. The parkour scenes in Casino Royale or its international predecessor, District B13, have a thrilling, infectious quality, as shown in the season premiere of “The Office.”
The original District B13 rolled off the assembly line of French movie mogul Luc Besson, who serves as something of the black sheep of France’s cinematic intelligentsia by writing, producing, and sometimes directing countless action films with more panache than brains (The Transporter trilogy). Slick but not slimy, District B13 harked back to the heyday of Hong Kong’s action films and launched the career of director Pierre Morel, who helmed last year’s surprise hit Taken and this week’s shoot-em-up From Paris With Love.
For the sequel, District 13: Ultimatum, Patrick Alessandrin replaces some of the street-level grit with show-offy flash, as if the follow-up has more money to burn. Where the predecessor never took itself too seriously, Ultimatum sticks its tongue so far in its cheek, it seems to be mocking itself, or maybe the audience for watching it. For instance, supercop Capt. Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli) first appears while undercover as a female exotic dancer. His drag outfit bares the top of his butt and he maintains the immodest disguise longer than you’d imagine. Raffaelli choreographs the franchise’s fight scenes and remains a great, two-fisted action star, but he spends his first big brawl alternately protecting a priceless Van Gogh, and using it as a weapon. Ultimatum’s flamboyant moments frequently inspire the response, “They’re kidding, right?”
A conspiracy to sew urban unrest in the lawless French ghetto of District B13 reunites Tomaso with Leïto (parkour co-founder David Belle), who’s apparently part Robin Hood, part gymnast, part kangaroo. When Tomaso and Leïto fight their way out of a French jail, the cop urges his extralegal partner to make like Spiderman and find some major evidence. Belle shows off remarkable moves, like leaping out windows and hurdling banisters, but Ultimatum doesn’t showcase parkour like the previous film. Alessandrin edits the action scenes so much, it’s harder to appreciate the stunt work.
Ultimatum’s third act unifies the rival gangs of District B13, which include Africans, Muslims, white supremacists and Asians — it’s part melting pot, part The Warriors evocation. The script shortchanges most of the crime lords, but they’re a physically memorable bunch, particularly Elodie Yung as a pierced, tattooed crime boss with a blade in her braid. Entertaining but without a socko payoff, Ultimatum leaves you hoping for a third film that returns to such parkour basics as literally bouncing off the walls.