Géla Babluani’s 13, a remake of his own 13 Tzameti, is arty, self-serious macho bullshit, and it’s also a lot of fun. The director still takes his original premise too seriously, but it’s a problem that only really becomes apparent during 13’s last 20 minutes, so until then, you easily get lost watching Babluani cover the same ground again, only this time with a mesmeric ensemble cast.
In a remote part of upstate New York, a baker’s dozen of tough guys – the likes of Ray Winstone, Sam Riley, a sweaty and morbidly obese black man, Mickey Rourke and a guy named Hans that yells, “ARRRGH!” a lot – gather in a poorly lit room. Other macho men, including 50 Cent, Ben Gazzara and Jason Statham, bet on those 13 men, who are given 13 revolvers with one bullet each as Michael Shannon, seated precariously atop a tiny ladder, yells the rules to the version of Russian Roulette they’re about to play. It’s like The Deer Hunter without anything but the barest topical context (more on this shortly). The 13 men all stare at a light bulb and wait for it to turn on. Then they shoot each other.
This movie exists. This is a real thing. There’s enough musk in that poorly lit room to put down a herd of rabid bison, and the only thing that could take 13’s testosterone level any higher would be if Mel Gibson showed up, jammed a bit and reins in Hulk Hogan’s mouth and rode him around like a pony. 13 is pure boneheaded bliss, a film so high on sweat and mortality and the sounds of Michael Shannon barking things like, “Eyes on the bulb,” that it can’t help but be better than its predecessor. It is cheesy and pulpy and dopey and fun fun fun!
But why, you might ask, do we need an action movie that takes the memorably traumatic death sport from The Deer Hunter and strips it of its historically specific context? I dunno, Bunky, but did you know that there’s a recession going on? That’s basically the answer Babluani offers in 13, a film that starts and stops with Riley’s young, downtrodden, passive-aggressive, blue-collar man.
Riley plays Vince, a stringy twenty-something looking for a quick way to pay off his recently deceased father’s considerable debts. He finds an out in the form of an invitation extended to him by a mysterious illegal gambling ring that encourages him to travel to a dimly lit room and hold a loaded gun to the back of a stranger’s head. If he lives, he makes lots of dough; if he loses, well, you get the idea. This is such a ridiculous manifestation of the action film’s young-man-with-Atlas-complex-must-make-money-to-support-family-because-he-like-Obi-Wan-is-their-only-hope stock plot that I’m surprised it hasn’t been pushed this far before.
Then again, 13 isn’t entertaining because it’s original, but because Babluani takes himself somewhat seriously, and because he’s assembled a game cast of character actors. There are large swathes of the film where these intimidating or just effectively posturing men look threatening simply by talking to each other. And somehow, almost every actor in the film hits his marks, or as my good friend Steve Carlson might put it, all of them meet the material they’ve been given at its intended level. 50 Cent twitches his eyebrows like a confused but hyper schoolboy while talking to an appropriately wasted Mickey Rourke. Jason Statham just stands there and lets Ray Winstone breathe heavily, as is his wont. Even Brad Gallagher, who plays Hans, is a real treat.
If I may, I’d like to praise Gallagher for a moment. Hans is represented at the match by Schlondorff (yes, Babluani is pretentious enough to name a character after Volker Schlöndorff!), played by Ben Gazzara. At one point, Schlondorff calls Hans over, but Hans won’t go. Now remember, Hans’s default answer to everything is, “ARRRGH.” When Schlondorff gently admonishes his champion that, “When you start something, you know you must see it through,” Hans replies with a lusty, “ARRRRRGH.”
So when Schlondorff says he needs to talk to Hans and asks one of the game’s volunteers (they seem more like film festival volunteers than employees, too sheepish and unsure of themselves to be getting paid) to bring him over, Hans reacts with an “ARRRGH” as the volunteer takes him by the arm. And that’s not even Hans’ best “ARRGH.” At the end of the first round of Russian Roulette, Vince looks behind him, making the mistake of looking back at Hans. Hans, being Hans, says, “ARRRGGH.”
Babluani does a commendable job of keeping events tense enough to move ahead at a brisk and reliably taut pace. There are stakes to this game, as you see when shooter #3 (Omar Hernandez), the aforementioned morbidly obese gentleman, has to sit down before the third round can proceed. His face is covered in enough sweat to make the sweat coating Dwayne Johnson in Fast Five look like a light misting. He’s got an advanced form of the shakes and it’s a pretty sad sight to see, especially considering that Michael Shannon’s referee is glowering down at him.
When Shannon starts yelling in 13, you forget that he’s yelling at a group of grown men – grown men with loaded guns, no less. He’s giving them orders and they’re just averting their eyes and loading their guns like it’s not a big deal, like it’s just S.O.P. and they’re really hoping Shannon doesn’t see them: “Oh gosh, don’t see me, don’t see me.”* But he sees #3 in that moment of weakness, and for a split-second, you’re afraid that shit’s about to go off. But it doesn’t. And you’re relieved for #3, you really are, and you’ve just barely met the guy.
Because it’s populated with such fascinating monsters, the world of 13 never feels stale, at least not until its stale denouement. Babluani takes so much time introducing various different subplots which he makes a point of not satisfactorily resolving that by the time the film returns to Vince’s story, you’ve forgotten that the film has to be about this hard-luck kid. That’s a real saving grace for a film as fundamentally unambitious as 13, though admittedly, it would have been nice if Babluani dared to make Vince just another face in the dimly lit room’s crowd.
But even Vince is a captivating character thanks to Riley’s twitchy performance. You can tell that this kid is dangerous (in a sociopathic sense) just from an opening scene where he asks his sister, on her birthday, why the pet lamb she dreams of owning must have black ears. She tells him it’s so that she can identify the mutton in question and take it back to bed with her at night (visions of Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex…But Were Afraid to Ask might dance through your head here). Riley interrupts her to say, “Yeah, but you forgot something.” And for a moment, it seems like Vince is going to shove a butter knife up his kid sister’s nose and twist it until she starts singing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” But he doesn’t. 13 works as well as it does because it’s filled with almost-confrontations just like that, little moments of absurdly overloaded tension. It’s real fun, oh yes.
* There needs to be another Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie, just so Shannon can play Willy Wonka and make children cry while growling in their ear as ropey gobs of spit shoot out of his mouth like laser beams.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, the L Magazine, the New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.