When I hear of Mickey Rourke being attached to a project, it immediately piques my interest. The notorious actor/Hollywood outcast/boxer/writer/comeback King has been through just about every phase that an actor can go through in his career, from his promisingly good start doing films like Angel Heart opposite Robert De Niro, to his it-doesn’t-get-much-worse-than-this participation in films like Double Team opposite Jean-Claude Van Damme (admittedly a guilty pleasure of mine). Recently he has just about managed to keep the momentum going after his celebrated comeback in Sin City, which was cemented by an Oscar-deserving turn in The Wrestler. Since then he’s brought gravitas to what was otherwise a fairly lightweight blockbuster sequel – Iron Man 2 – in what was arguably the most mainstream role that he has ever done, and followed suit with The Immortals, also guest starring in Stallone’s The Expendables to good effect.
In between, however, he’s still found the time to do some distinctly below-average productions, all of which must have looked good on paper: most notably a failed adaptation of Elmore ‘Out of Sight’ Leonard’s Killshot, and the terrible Passion Play, which boasted Rourke, Bill Murray and a serious performance from Megan Fox to boot. Both Killshot and Passion Play were locked in post-production hell for what seemed like an eternity, and that’s never a good sign for a movie. The other film of his that has been basically buried for over three years, is 13.
Funnily enough, it’s not even a starring vehicle for him, but I think his supporting presence in the movie has still had an effect on it being put on a backburner (as with the other two), released quietly to an unsuspecting public who are preoccupied with the more mainstream roles that are still hogging the limelight.
13 is actually a US English-language colour remake of a black and white 2005 French/Georgian production by French/Georgian director Gela Balbuani, entitled Tzameti (the Georgian word for 13), but released in many countries under the rather nonsensical title of 13 Tzameti (13 13). After my reviews of Let Me In and Christmas’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake, I would think my views are clear when it comes to ostensibly unnecessary remakes of relatively recent foreign hits, but this is a slightly different case: here the original’s director, Balbuani, actually elected to remake the film himself.
The story is basically the same as the original: a young man, down on his luck and in desperate need of cash (here because his father requires expensive medical treatment and has no insurance cover), happens upon a secret letter that promises a huge cash payout for just one night’s work. Pretending to be the recipient of the letter, he follows the elusive directions and is eventually taken to a mansion in the middle of nowhere, where he is forced to participate in a grand game of glorified Russian roulette, where rich businessmen bet on who is going to survive, and who is going to fall.
Balbuiani did not just secure Mickey Rourke for his US remake, he also managed to get Ray Winstone and Jason Statham involved, as well as an aged Ben Gazzara (Raiders of the Ark), Alex Skarsgard (Straw Dogs, True Blood), Michael Shannon (from Boardwalk Empire), and also the abysmal 50 Cent (who ruins just about every production he has ever been in, including the De Niro / Pacino re-teaming, Righteous Kill). He even got Ray Liotta (Goodfellas, Narc) briefly interested before the actor thought better, which is I guess when warning bells should have gone off (if 50 Cent didn’t already do that) as Liotta hasn’t made the greatest career choices recently and yet still turned this down.
Still, ever-reliable, Ray Winstone has repeatedly come up with the goods both in solid supporting roles (Edge of Darkness, Hugo) and as the lead in smaller, often independent projects (Nil By Mouth, Sexy Beast). I enjoyed last year’s Tracker, and am quite looking forward to his upcoming remake of The Sweeney. And Statham’s made a name for himself as something of an action superstar, and though this is getting a bit repetitive with his choice of movies – for every Crank, there’s a Crank 2; for every Transporter, there’s a Killer Elite; for every Blitz there’s a The Mechanic – his less action-dominated performances have been generally more impressive, including Snatch, and The Bank Heist.
Surely with this kind of cast involved, and a bigger budget to play with, the director could only improve upon his original?
Well there are three real problems with this movie that kill it even before it gets off the ground: the US setting, the terrible lead cast choice, and, perhaps most fundamentally, the gambling premise.
Firstly – and this is an issue that was present in the original, but perhaps not as painfully obvious – there really isn’t a great deal of skill involved in this Russian Roulette-esque game. The plot premise hinges upon a group of men, standing in a circle, each pointing his gun at the back of the head of the man in front of them. They all focus on a light hanging from the ceiling in the centre of the circle, and when that light goes out, they have to pull their triggers. Those left standing get to survive for another round. Now, whilst I can see how there may be some element of skill involved in the latter elements of the game (eventually the game shifts into a more standard Russian Roulette ‘duel’), there appears to be little more than luck dictating who survives these initial rounds. The notion that an experienced player (as some of them purportedly are) would have more chance of surviving this round than a novice just seems ludicrous. I can just about understand why people would bet on this game, but I simply cannot understand how there are any kind of odds associated with the various players – it’s simple Russian Roulette, done a little differently, and that game is devoid of any skill and entirely based on luck.
Secondly – and this has a direct effect on the first part – the US location just seems wrong. It would be like setting one of the Hostel movies in the US (oh dear, they’ve done that, haven’t they, with the second DTV sequel?!). If these kinds of death-games take place, it would have to be in a more believable location, where there was enough desperation to justify them, and enough corruption to enable them. Oh, and no authorities on hand who would track down and shut these organisations down before they even got off the ground. The notion that a simple New York home electrician could just happen upon this elite club, get himself embroiled with them, elude the authorities (who are ludicrously inept) and then be forced to participate? Well, it was just a little bit too far to suspend disbelief for me.
Thirdly – the lead actor, Sam Riley, is just terrible. He’s like a poor man’s Robert Pattinson. And Pattinson is a terrible actor to begin with (as anyone who has survived a Twilight movie can attest to). Riley just has no charisma, no acting talent, and no presence with which to drive the movie as the lead – following him around in this movie is like following a starving rat through the sewer and then waiting to see if it eats, or gets eaten by, another rat. Actually, come to think of it, even that might be more interesting.
So did these woes plague the original movie? Well, yes and no. Babluani’s black and white low budget Tzameti was lauded first and foremost because it was such a minimalistic film which managed to wring out every last drop of tension from what was, essentially, a fairly simple premise. Indeed, there was little more to the film that an extended version of the scenes done much better in Cimino’s masterpiece, The Deer Hunter, but to Babluani’s credit, he managed to show just how much could be done with so little – not only effectively using the black and white cinematography, but also making the most of the restrictive, dilapidated settings (the light coming from a crack in the ceiling) and the cast of unknowns who, without any expectations of them, genuinely seemed more plausible in the roles of these desperate contestants.
Tzameti, far from a great film, was merely a promising low budget independent debut from a foreign filmmaker; it was a project that showed off his blossoming talent – it certainly did not prove that he was going to be the next big thing. This was not Aronofsky’s Pi, or Anatoli’s Cube. But it was a good start for a very young director (he’s still only 32). Unfortunately, for his sophomore project, rather than capitalise on his success – and on the critical acclaim that he found on the Festival circuit – he elected to just remake Tzameti. And gone is the minimalist freshness to the proceedings, replaced with a cheap, cold feel, as if the film is nothing more than a badly edited collection of scenes, many of which could easily be removed without any damage to the whole, and as if everybody involved in the piece really didn’t want to be there.
In that respect, the supporting cast, whilst they don’t completely phone in their performances, really do nothing for the film. I suppose that many of them felt that their characters were completely superfluous to the proceedings – and most of them would be right – and some may have also not even understood where the writer/director was going with the characters, but the end result is still the same: tepid performances from a cast who should have known better. Perhaps it’s also a lesson to filmmakers in respect of casting unknowns: the original genuinely kept up the tension because you did not know who was going to get shot, or what was going to happen – the remake has a bunch of relatively famous people in with a bunch of unknowns... I wonder who’s going to bite the bullet first??!
Statham looks like he is just waiting around for his taxi to arrive to take him to his next, hopefully better, film project. It’s nice that he doesn’t take his character here down the action angle, but, really, it’s an odd part to play which he arguably does not quite have the acting chops for. His character is one of the gamblers, and he’s already in a great deal of debt, so he springs his psychotic brother out of a mental institution so that the brother can win the money for him. Firstly, Statham’s character is utterly despicable – and Statham’s never really been one capable of making for a convincing villain – and, secondly, how on earth is this a plan to make money to get you out of debt? Whilst I can see how bored businessmen might gamble heavily on random strangers shooting one another, putting your own brother’s life on the line in a nearly-completely-pure-luck game of glorified Russian Roulette just seems nonsensical. Of course they use the argument that the brother is a two-time past winner, but that doesn’t actually mean anything if luck isn’t on his side this time.
Rourke looks totally out of place, as if he’s worked hard to bring something to a nothing character in a nothing film where, arguably, his role is completely unnecessary. Oh, actually, that’s exactly what he has done. In a reported interview following a movie Premiere, Rourke was alleged to have said that this movie was so bad that nobody wanted to release it, and that he did it purely for the money. Both are statements which I can totally believe, and the man has never been one for holding back about the poor quality of some of his work. Unfortunately, not only is his random cowboy-pulled-out-of-a-Mexican-jail-to-participate-under-duress character pretty extraneous to the central proceedings, most of his scenes are opposite none other than grand master method actor 50 Cent. Somehow, as if by some kind of dark magic, 50 Cent is capable of absorbing other people’s acting skills, and dissipating them using flat, tedious, frankly terrible acting, devaluing the other actor’s efforts in the process. Seriously, the man has some skills to be able to pull it off. Rourke would have been more effective talking to a brick wall as opposed to this wooden wannabe.
Funnily enough, the only person who survives the piece intact is Winstone. Somehow he manages to bring gravitas and presence to his character, whilst adding in some subtle psychotic nuances, and rounding it off with an unexpected amount of sympathy. You feel sorry for the fact that he is being manipulated, and for the fact that, somewhere inside, he looks like he knows it. I honestly think that Winstone was the only one in the movie who actually committed to the part and took it in the right direction, but even his efforts are largely wasted through fruitless exchanges with Statham and a resultantly ineffective resolution.
13 is basically a really bad movie, which features a number of reasonably famous actors who really should have known better before getting involved in a project like this. If any of them had seen the original movie before signing up for this they would have realised that it wasn’t just another foreign film that didn’t need remaking, it was actually a foreign film which would likely be impossible to effectively remake, as the core factors that made it a success in the first place simply could not be replicated using a bigger budget, a more famous location and big name stars. Add the fatal element of a terrible lead whose character you would probably prefer to die rather than live, and you have a movie that really would have been better off staying in the post-production hell that it has been in for the last few years permanently.