Sometimes a press release comes along that’s just too implausible to pass up. There’s just something about it that catches the eye or something in the content that contains a hard to refuse offer. Such is the case with this week’s direct to DVD release of the film 13.
The release stated that the film starred Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, Alexander Skarsgard and Michael Shannon in a remake of director Gela Babluani’s wonderful 2005 film 13 Tzameti with Babluani returning to helm the new version. It wasn’t even until I started watching the film that I realized the film also starred 50 Cent, Ben Gazara, that guy who played Ian Curtis in Control, and Ray Winstone. So let me get this straight. All these people are in the same movie and it went straight to DVD and how is it that I never once heard about this film? I responded with the same kind of excitement that I usually reserve for watching latter day Liam Neeson films. A request for a review copy was sent within seconds.
There’s usually only three ways something like this can go. It’s either very poorly made, a hard sell, or batshit insane. 13, however, doesn’t meet just one of the criteria. It meets all three. This movie had to be chopped up and reworked at some point, it has almost no commercial value outside of the case, and it keeps the lunatic premise of the original film faithfully intact. It’s compulsively watchable and never dull, but also terribly awkward and lacking in any real cinematic value. As such, it’s one of the best direct to video titles to come down the pike in quite some time.
The film generally follows in the footsteps of the low budget, black and white original, albeit in colour and in the United States. Sam Riley stars as Vince, a down on his luck Ohio electrician who needs to come up with an arbitrary sum of money to pay for his dying father’s life-saving surgery. While on a job he overhears one of his clients talking about a potentially large financial payday. After the client overdoses, Vince pretends to be his client in hopes of coming into a million dollar windfall. The only problem is that Vince has no clue what he has to do to get the money.
Vince follows a series of ridiculously easy to trace clues and stays one step ahead of some tailing federal agents to a secluded area of upstate New York where he will become a participant in a deadly underground betting ring. Apparently rich people from all over the world flock to upstate New York to bet on a Russian Roulette tournament where participants stand in a circle, spin a bullet or two in the chamber, and fire at the person standing in front of them. This eliminates the possibility of everyone freaking out since they are technically killing other people and not themselves.
The film’s more recognizable faces come into play during the actual tournament. Statham plays one of the film’s cold hearted gamblers working for an absent proxy of even more dangerous people. He’s exploiting his mentally deranged older brother (Winstone) as the man he stakes the money on in the tournament. Rourke, playing a character that isn’t even in the original film, is an ex-con dragged to the tournament with a handler (Fiddy) to make sure he doesn’t try any funny business. Skarsgard plays the gofer/driver of the gamblers Vince has fallen in with, and Shannon is the tournament’s host/overseer.
After the gritty, sparse original, it’s easy to see why such big names would be attracted to such a film. 13 Tzameti was a thinking man’s version of machismo, filled with philosophical musings on the real monetary value of human life. Traces of the original film’s ambition are still on display, but the real problem seems to be that Babluani simply isn’t very comfortable working on a larger budget with a studio backing. (Despite being released in Canada by Montreal based VVS, the opening titles still credit Paramount as a distributor.) Maybe it was the producers who approached the cast, but the star factor is both an asset and the film’s undoing.
The A-story of Vince’s woes is adequate, but pushed aside to grant the other characters more space. The moments with Statham and Winstone are actually the most riveting moments of the film that don’t involve Michael Shannon. Rourke is as great as usual, but his subplot has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the film and it ends far before the climax. Rourke is further saddled with having to act in all of his scenes directly opposite a god awful, life sucking Curtis Jackson. Skarsgard, on the other hand, might come out the best of the bunch because he never does a fucking thing the entire movie and nothing he does can be critiqued.
Then there is Michael Shannon. Hoo-boy is there Michael Shannon. The tournament scenes in the film are naturally the centrepieces, but Shannon elevates them to a form of high art. Simply by already being tall, crazed looking, and sitting on an 8 foot high lifeguard chair while shouting at people, one of this year’s leading candidates for a Best Actor Oscar (for the terrifically underrated Take Shelter, which you probably should watch instead of this if you haven’t already) steals the film away from everyone else. The people in the circle might be shooting each other, but Shannon seems like he’s half a step away from just killing every motherfucker in the room. It’s the kind of performance internet memes are made of.
It’s uneven, for sure, but as far as minor star studded duds go, this one’s actually a cut above some of the crap passing as Netflix fare these days. Most of it is probably because it’s interesting just to think about the meetings that had to go on to get this cast assembled. I hope to see them all together again in a heist film together or the direct to DVD Justice League film DC will probably churn out. It’s definitely a curiosity, but it’s one worth checking out with a case of brews, a sense of humour, and a bunch of junk food. It certainly didn’t fail to meet my expectations.