Forget Russian roulette. Judge Gordon Sullivan even finds Scrabble terrifying.
You lose. You die.
Some of the most haunting scenes in all of cinema's long history include those from The Deer Hunter, as we watch Robert De Niro come to terms with his friends slide into the world of gambling on Russian roulette. The images of a dead-eyed Christopher Walken (in that absurd bandana) holding a gun to his head are so raw, so stark that it was only a matter of time before someone decided they'd make a great foundation for a whole film. The result was 13 Tzameti, an international film (in French by a Georgian filmmaker) in 2005, and this flick has been given the remake treatment as 13 (by its original director, no less). I can't comment on the original, but 13 is a surprisingly effective thriller that balances dramatic and noir elements with ease. The Blu-ray is a bit of a disappointment, but hopefully that won't keep viewers from discovering this interesting film.
Facts of the Case
Vince (Sam Riley, Control) has a problem: his dad needs expensive operations, and the family is out of money. Working as an electrician, Vince overhears a client talking about a letter he's received that could be worth a lot of money. When the client ODs, Vince takes the letter and follows the instructions it contains. They lead him to an underground Russian roulette tournament, where over a dozen contestants hold guns to each other's heads while rich men gamble on them.
For those who need a primer on Russian roulette, here it is: the basic idea is that a revolver (which traditionally holds six shots) is loaded with fewer bullets than it can hold. The cylinder is then spun and the trigger pulled while aimed at a person's head. Depending on how many bullets are put in the gun, the person being shot at has a certain likelihood of dying. In 13, the game is changed a bit because each gambler brings their own contestant to the game, and then the contestants put in a bullet for each round they survive. For the actual game, they get in a circle, so that each person is both putting a gun to someone's head while also having a gun put to their own. When a gambler's contestant dies, he can elect to put money on another gambler's contestant. When enough contestants have been eliminated, two are chosen for a duel to the death, and the winner gets the lion's share of the gambling money.
What this means for the viewer is that there's an obvious structure to 13—it's much like other fight-based films (think something like Bloodsport) in that it proceeds by rounds and each time a gun goes to someone's head the tension is ratcheted up another notch. The violence is frank, though not excessively gory. I understand from reviews that the original had most of the violence off-screen, but in 13 there's a solid mixture of shots that take us directly to the gunshots and others that are even more tense as we can't see immediately who has taken a hit. It all adds up to a film that offers 90 straight minutes of tension. First the audience gets to wonder what exactly Vince is getting himself into, and once he's at the event, exactly how he's going to get out alive. For those who can take the violence, 13 offers a compelling thriller with surprising depth and a heartbreaking ending (which I don't want to talk about too much for fear of ruining its impact).
No one could be blamed, however, for looking at the cover or the cast list of this film and thinking they were getting an empty headed action film that would be long on slow-mo antics and short on character and depth. Jason Statham (The Transporter) is obviously the big draw here, and he takes center stage in the cover art, but this is Sam Riley's film. He takes the downtrodden intensity he brought to Control and channels it into the desperation of a man willing to do whatever is necessary to save himself and his father. That's not to diminish Statham's role—here he plays a dapper gambler and it's a bit of a stretch compared to the usual tough-guy roles he's asked to perform. The presence of Statham, Ray Winstone, and Mickey Rourke, who've all played heavies and action guys, could easily give viewers the wrong idea about 13. Yes, there's some violence; yes, there are fights. However, this is much more of a thriller, with the fractured psychology of the contestants playing a big role. Don't come to 13 looking for action or stunts. Instead, this is a quiet, intense look at men pushed to the brink.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
13 isn't quite a perfect film. The whole "I'm fighting for my sick dad" angle feels a bit pat. It's hard to imagine that Vince, a mild-mannered electrician could suddenly be okay with killing people and keep his stuff together in this situation. Also, I feel like the film could do a bit more to make the whole game aspect a bit clearer. I wasn't always sure of the rules in the house; I know that those "let me tell you the rules" scenes are lame, but sometimes they're necessary.
This Blu-ray is also a bit of a disappointment. On the technical front things are fine—the 2.39:1 AVC-encoded image looks good. The film is pretty stylized, with a very cool palette, but detail is strong and saturation looks spot on. Blacks are solid, and noise isn't a significant problem. The TrueHD soundtrack captures every click and bang of the revolvers, and the dialogue is clean and clear. It's not the most impressive soundtrack, but the film is meant to be quiet to play with tension. Extras, however, are where the disc really falls down; none are included. Nothing from the actors, nothing from the director on remaking his film for American, and nothing about how the film was shot. It's a real disappointment for a film that seems to have such a rich history.
I honestly wasn't expecting much when 13 entered my player, but I was hooked early and kept on the line until the final, brilliant shot. It's not a film for the squeamish, but 13 offers an intriguing premise, amazing acting, and a satisfying ending. The Blu-ray looks and sounds good, but the extras are sadly lacking. It's worth a rental at the very least for fans of the actors or extreme thrillers.
Despite the so-so Blu-ray release, 13 is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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