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Friday, June 17, 2011
Trigger-happy remake shooting blanks
By KAORI SHOJI
Being thrown in a cramped, damp room full of extremely muscular men may sound like an ideal way to spend an evening, but take it from me: There are issues. The air's so coated with testosterone it's hard to breathe, the conversation is far, far from anything resembling romantic and, worst of all, these men aren't paying attention to you. None. Their interest extends to just two things: money and guns. Yuck.
That basically sums up what "13" is all about. This is a film that has gathered some of the most undatable males working in cinema today — Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, Ray Winstone, a painfully aged Ben Gazzara, David Zayas and Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson — and basically told them to huff and strut in Italian suits before blowing each other's brains out.
To say that "13" is an antimatter substance of a feel-good movie is an understatement — it makes you feel atrocious and clammy for a full 48 hours before you can marshal the strength to go and look for something to soothe those damaged nerves. I'm thinking a trip to Bali and a tubful of herbal moisturizer.
"13" is directed by Georgia's Gela Babluani, and it's a remake of his own debut feature film, "13 Tzameti," from back in 2005. "Tzameti" had been made on a budget so tight, much of the filming had to be done in a neighbor's garage and the cast had to bring their own lunches. But the end result was a surprise: a dark, hectic story that recalled some terrible animal in the night. Hollywood swooped down for the remake, invited Babluani to the United States and asked him to repeat the formula, this time with a megawatt cast and a budget to match.
Sadly, what worked in the Georgian garage is lost in big-studio translation. Though there are moments of intense pleasure (Rourke and Statham getting uptight in about 2.5 sq. meters of space — definitely one for the annals), "13" lacks the sincerity and arts-and-craftsy charm that distinguished its predecessor from the rest of the cut-price B-grade horror pack.
What links "13" to Babluani's original work isn't the scare factor but money, true and simple. Georgia wasn't exactly wallowing in wealth in 2005, and when Babluani was working on "13" in 2009, the U.S. was reeling from the Great Recession. In both cases, Babluani must have had money on the brain, and it shows in the way his characters obsess over it.
Aptly, the story opens with poverty-stricken Ohio boy Vince (Sam Riley) going out to work as an electrician to help pay for his dad's medical bills. Vince accidentally overhears a conversation in the home of a client (Michael Berry Jr.) about making some "real money" in a single day. When the client suddenly dies, Vince decides to fill in his shoes by pretending to be this guy and going out for the job himself. How hard could it be?
As it turns out, plenty. The client was part of an underground gambling club in which rich guys in suits place bets on who'll survive in a ruthless game of Russian roulette. The bidders play for high stakes, passing back and forth like bowls of peanuts the kind of money that could buy Vince a house, keep his dad in hospital care, feed his whole family for a year and more.
Partly because he has no choice but to play and partly because he feels the allure of all that cash, Vince gets in line with the rest of the players, aims the gun at the head of the man standing in front of him and pulls the trigger.
Vince's fresh youthfulness and initial naiveness are a foil for the muscle-bound, case-hardened men who have gathered to stimulate their jaded nerves. For them, violence and death are mere accessories that alleviate (or in some cases accentuate) the boredom of extravagant living, and you can tell they're sucking up the sweaty, panicky atmosphere with sheer exultation. Babluani's brand of misogyny and hideous cynicism chills the mind, and it becomes hard to concentrate as one by one, men are shot down and dragged away from the bloody floor.
Bizarrely, "13" is quite life-affirming — though it leaves the viewer feeling uneasy, it hides a heartening message, like a crumpled flower in a dirty fist. No matter what happens, life is the most precious commodity, so don't put it up for sale in a dingy basement. Something like that.