A few years ago, I came across an odd little foreign film that I absolutely fell in love with named "13 Tzameti." At the time, I had no clue what the movie was about and, without preconceived notions, I was fascinated by the dark and twisted tale that unraveled. As a young man is drawn into a complicated and deadly underground battle for survival, the movie is rather stunning in its simplicity. As a very low budget endeavor, it used its sparseness to great advantage. Claustrophobic, tense, and unrelenting, the camera pushes up close and personal as the tension escalates throughout and it is truly a riveting and, at times, unsettling experience. Its writer/director Gela Babluani has been given the opportunity to adapt his thrilling and award winning sensation (Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Best Director at Venice Film Festival) into an English language version with a pretty impressive cast. The resultant "13" lacks a bit of the intensity of its predecessor, and opening up the story doesn't necessarily serve the material well. Also, its intriguing premise is a little harder to buy in an American Midwest setting, but the movie still has a visceral punch that a certain audience might enjoy.
The movie stars Sam Riley (so great in Control) as an electrician whose family is in dire financial straits. At a work site, he hears talk of a clandestine "job" that has the potential to pay huge. When the person planning on attending the job dies of an overdose, Riley nabs the instructions and heads off to take his place. He has no idea what is in store for him! What he finds is a chilling sports contest in which people bet on life and death itself in increasingly challenging rounds. He can't back out and there can be only one winner, and Riley has no choice but to try to make it to the end. The testosterone fueled plot is headlined by some talented individuals--Mickey Rourke and Ray Winstone are fellow contestants, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson and Alexander Skarsgard are two of the contestant minders, Ben Gazzara and Jason Statham are financially invested, and Michael Shannon is the evening's intense emcee. While it is a fantastic cast, though, no one (aside from Riley and maybe Statham) really has a lot to do.
Herein lies the problem, Babluani tries to adapt his screenplay to accommodate this roster of actors. So we get flashbacks and character development for peripheral and non-important characters. Yes, now we get more of Mickey Rourke and 50 Cent, but this actually detracts from the central contest. And that is the movie! The contest is inescapable and the original movie put viewers on the front lines until the very end. It was exquisitely uncomfortable in confining us in the small and deadly space. But while I wasn't necessarily blown away by "13," I still appreciated its unsavory premise. The cast is quite good, even if underutilized, and it's not a movie you feel like you've seen a hundred times before. Those expecting big action may have to look elsewhere, this plays more as a psychological thriller. I suspect this movie might be a bit divisive--you could think it is outlandish and hate it or you could like it for its uniqueness. I liked, but didn't love, "13." But I do recommend it and, if you ever get the chance, check out the original as well for something a bit more harrowing. About 3 1/2 stars. KGHarris, 10/11.