It’s unfortunate, but there’s a Movie Content Hierarchy. Great filmmakers don’t pretend this exists -- Darren Aronofsky makes a horror movie and genre-hating critics love it, and former Fangoria mainstay David Cronenberg maintains his integrity and themes of perversion and body modification while becoming a boutique festival filmmaker. But more often than not, directors, screenwriter and producers are beholden to the unimaginative thought of “this is how it is meant to be done.” More specifically, films from other parts of the world, particularly smaller ones, have their own vocabulary, their own rhythms and idiosyncrasies. Gela Babluani’s “13 Tzameti” is one of those films, a slow burn thriller from France shot in stark black and white and featuring minimal accoutrement in terms of score, outsized performances, or onscreen violence. It’s a picture that aims low but with laser-sharp precision, to the point where you felt that Babluani was a major storytelling talent with little affection for sentimentality or empty showmanship.
However, Babluani fell into the same Hollywood trap that claimed Ole Bornedal and George Sluizer. Both filmmakers came to America after highly touted pictures, Bornedal with the atmospheric, diabolical “Nightwatch” and Sluizer having directed the nightmarish “The Vanishing.” Both were asked to remake their films in English. Sluizer responded with a glossy action thriller, almost a “Simpsons“-level parody of what an American remake of a classic foreign film should be. Bornedal’s “Nightwatch” redo wasn’t so much bad as it was completely irrelevant, restaging sequences beat-by-beat from the original, removing some of the ickier subtext to create more of a cravenly-commercial thrill ride. Neither returned to work in America again, though Bornedal has apparently just wrapped a film for Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures that will probably be thanklessly dumped on DVD.
The point is that these two filmmakers surrendered to the Movie Content Hierarchy. Instead of making movies that were distinctly theirs’, with a sense of humor, an idea of politics, and a strong national identity, they took their original work and tried to infuse it with Hollywood theatrics. Sometimes it’s a major flaw that disrupts the picture: “The Vanishing” carries a third act that plays like a practical joke. But sometimes, cripplingly, it’s minor: an added sting on the soundtrack here. A jump scare added there. The added indulgence of needless side plots and digressions, if only to avoid a mainstream audience ever having to cope with silence (god forbid). Because in the Hierarchy, movies with these factors simply receive that much more attention.
Which is to say far more people will see the star-packed “13” than will ever bother to sit through “13 Tzameti.” And yet, the similarities remain. In both films, a young craftsman down on his luck ends up accepting the envelope of a dead man. Inside that package is cash and instructions. Desperate to follow the green, he soon finds out that by taking the dead man’s place, he’s agreeing to participate in a Russian Roulette contest, where he’ll join dozens of desperate, armed men in a conga line of chaos, each ready to empty their chamber into the head of the nearest poor bastard.
It’s a skimpy story, and the original zeroes in on the tension of one man forced to stare death in the face for a few bucks. But a story like this needs that tight, focused structure, otherwise the audience will begin to rebel against its simplicity. Babluani attempts to cater to that audience but he only eliminates the suspense. It’s unfair to compare “13” to 'Tzameti,' but it’s pretty easy to see where things go wrong, not in failing to honor the original vision, but creating a turgid picture free of suspense.
In the original film, the movie begins and our mostly silent protagonist grabs the envelope and runs. With the stark photography, the quiet soundtrack, and the stakes unclear -- we only know he is a desperate man -- we see this character and begin to think, is he our leading man? Is he the hero? When every character is sporting a gun, it only adds to our unease and uncertainty as to how it will all play out. In “13,” however, the film begins with the same character, named Vince and played by British actor Sam Riley (notably struggling with an American accent). With a syrupy score from Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders, we are told that Vince’s predicament, providing for his family who struggle to pay Dad’s medical bills, is a matter of great tragedy. Those moments of backstory, including a visit Dad’s hospital bed, affirm that that is a character we’re meant to root for. This runs counter to what we know in the original film, but it’s an acceptable mode of storytelling for a Hollywood picture, so we relent.
Why this eventually DOESN’T work from a storytelling perspective is that when you throw this character into a sea of hard men with firearms, he will not drown. We’ve seen his dying father and his struggling family. Once he takes a bullet to the head, it would render those long establishing scenes irrelevant, no? These are cheap, tacky storytelling devices, but they usually work in a more conventional story. On paper, "13" is unconventional enough to be borderline primitive: a sick father and a financially-solvent family are needless, boring complications. Babluani attempts to beef up the narrative with a couple of side plots, of course, but because there’s no rational way for them to affect Vince’s story, they’re mere distractions, fodder for a “13” television series somewhere down the road, but not as part of the main attraction. In one, power broker Jason Statham swings a few backroom deals to get disabled savant brother Ray Winstone into the competition, but Babluani obscures the intentions of this story development. Clearly Winstone is more than what he seems, and Statham may be less. But they seem like interlopers in Vince’s story, and with Statham reduced to scowling in a fedora and Winstone mostly grunting and gazing downward, it’s a sidetrack without a payoff.
Even worse is cowboy hat-wearing Mickey Rourke, released from prison to stare into the barrel of a gun on a nightly basis. He’s a pawn in the game, controlled by unseen men who hire Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson to watch his every movie. The scenes between these two are a marvel of don’t-give-a-shit. Jackson, a tragically limited actor, seems like he’s been trying these last few years, selecting a number of diverse projects, but he has zero presence, and he spends his time onscreen thinking. What is my next line? Where did I park the car? What is Lloyd Banks up to? It doesn’t matter, the poor guy just seems confused. And Rourke looks even more weathered than usual, his eyes half closed as he drawls lines about being ready to die. You can’t really hire Rourke to play suicidal, and it’s made worse by the cosmetic disaster of his face. It’s really not clear why the makeup department tried to make him look as if he was wearing a Randy The Man Halloween mask.
It’s unclear why there’s a bevy of other name actors aboard the film as well, though they make good use of their time. Alexander Skarsgard plays a courier in what amounts to a glorified secretary role, but he glowers and intimidates in a sharp, threatening role. As a deep-pocketed businessman, Ben Gazzara is delightfully unscrupulous. And as the spirited announcer of each event, Michael Shannon indulges his eye-bulging mega-acting instincts by yelling all of his lines in a tortured, annoyed staccato.
Babluani at least still sticks to some of the particulars of the story that made the original so compelling. The specifics of the competition haven’t changed, including the tension of having a circle of guys pointing guns at each other. It’s hard to screw that up, but Babluani has a number of clever crane shots that give you an idea of the scope of devastation that’s occurring. And there’s even one upsetting moment where one red shirt lunges back to life minutes after taking a bullet to the head, leaving his investors scrambling for the rule book. The problem lies in Babluani trying to play by someone else’s book. A book we’ve read before, a book we’ve learned to ignore, and a book that just plain sucks. [D]