“You lose. You die.”
In 2005 Russian-born writer director Gela Babluani had a bit of an Eastern Europe success with his film 13 Tzameti. The film took the Grand Prize Jury at Sundance and a few other film festivals, winning also in places like Venice and Transylvania. The film made quite a splash, and it wasn’t long before it attracted the attention of American distributors. An English-language version was inevitable at this point. Thankfully Babluani was able to work out a deal where he got to direct his own remake. Babluani has received more than a little heat for essentially remaking the exact same film with only a few changes to cater to the American audience. I never saw the original film, but now I have seen his remake. It would become his first American film and what a film it has turned out to be.
“Attention. The first round is about to begin. I’m asking the guards to please distribute the bullets — one bullet to each player.”
Vince (Riley) is a struggling electrician. Times are tough all over, but he has it worse than most. His father is in the hospital and has required one costly operation after another. There just isn’t enough money left to keep this up. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and when Vince overhears a costumer talking about a huge payday it intrigues him. When the man ends up dead, he takes advantage of a case of mistaken identity to take the dead man’s place in a “game” he knows nothing about, only that there’s big bucks involved. He follows the cryptic instructions and ends up part of a sadistic game that does indeed offer a huge payout, but the risks are just as high.
He’s come into an underground sport where rich people gamble on a group of men who play Russian Roulette. There is a complicated betting system where the spectators sponsor a player and own the rights to wages placed upon them. They grab a percentage that they can negotiate ever higher as the player excels in the various stages of the game. The players stand in a circle and point their guns at the player in front of the. When a glass bulb with spider silluettes lights up they are all to pull the trigger. The unlucky ones fall dead, and the fortunate few ready for another round. In each round one more bullet is added to the chamber. Finally after a 50/50 round two players are randomly selected to go head to head. The winner gets to go home with a cut of the profits. The loser… well, his financial worries are over as well.
“We are born only once and we die only once; you must be philosophical, huh?”
This is a different kind of film. While it’s tempting to compare it to the likes of Fight Club, this film is less about the action and more about the tension. I don’t know how Babluani handled the original film, but if it was even half as suspenseful as this one I can understand why it took so many festival honors. There is a pretty impressive cast here that includes Mickey Rourke, Ray Winstone, 50 Cent, Alexander Skarsgard and Jason Stratham, but don’t be fooled by the star power on display here. There are no standout performances to rely on here, and that is by design. Babluani does a masterful job of bringing you directly into the situation and allowing the subtle atmosphere to carry the weight for his actors. The real acting is on the faces as each round prepares to begin. If anyone stands out at all, it’s Michael Shannon as Henry the ringmaster here. As he calls out the instructions, he’s enjoying every minute of the sadistic game. But you don’t see this in any flamboyant displays that take you out of the reality of the situation. You see it in quick grins that punctuate a word here or there. Otherwise, he’s all business and in command of the room at all times. As the players wait for the light to flash on, there are a wonderful variety of facial expressions. Yeah, that’s where the real acting is taking place. You’ll find yourself holding your breath in anticipation as you cycle through the various expressions that range from zombie-like blankness to sheer terror and fear. And just like that the moment releases and you’ve been taken on an emotional ride that shows that Babluani has done his job well.
The set piece is as simple as they come. It looks like a mansion somewhere that could really be anywhere at all. The players all wear black t-shirts with their corresponding player number in large silver letters like the players on a baseball team. Henry shouts out “Players load your bullets” with the fanfare of an umpire shouting “Play ball” or the traditional “Gentlemen start your engines” of an automobile classic race. All along Babluani manages to make us believe these men have done this many times before. There’s a level of acceptance among the spectators/gamblers that stands in sharp contrast to that of the players who are taking the ultimate risks. There’s likely some kind of message about worker exploitation here, but it goes over our heads as we’re locked into the emotional drama of the thing.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film quite like it before. It’s much better than its direct-to-video release implies. However, there is a near-fatal flaw. The film suffers from a 15 minute coda that appears to fall completely apart. It’s a letdown and stretches the bounds of credibility the film spent most of the first hour or so creating. It’s as if no one could quite figure out exactly what to do after the tournament was over. It’s forgivable, but only because of how compelling most of the film is. I could have lived with the film ending about 12 minutes earlier. Don’t let it keep you from enjoying a rather unique and engaging film.
13 is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 30 mbps. The high definition image presentation is very average. There is a mild hint of grain that gives the film a nice textured feel. But long shots reveal awful detail, and there’s a lot of soft focus that limits the field of vision considerably. Fortunately, these limitations aren’t quite so bad once we get started with the game. There tighter shots and shorter focus lines balance out the issue. Black levels are pretty much average.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track is pretty mild. You can hear dialog fine, and there are a few limited surround effects, but this is pretty much an ears-forward film. I can’t say I was crazy about the score. There are too many moments it intrudes and distracts. Less was definitely more here.
You know that a film has done its job when you find yourself asking those “what if” questions when it’s over. You can’t help but ask yourself what you might do in the same situation. There’s plenty of water cooler philosophy to take from this one. If you should find this one at your local video store, “You should count yourself lucky.”