American remakes of foreign films are generally met with sneering contempt before they’ve ever even been shown to the public; some for good reason, others undeservedly so. Having the same director of the original film shoot a remake, however, occasionally lessens any flare ups. With 13, Georgian born Géla Babluani has made some noticeable changes to his award-winning French debut, 13 Tzameti (2005), including (and perhaps unnecessarily) a star studded cast.
Vince Ferro is a young and impulsive man working as an electrician in order to help his family pay for his father’s increasingly expensive hospital bills. While on a job, Vince overhears William, his employer, talking to a friend, quietly discussing a mysterious envelope he’s received in the post, inviting him to make a serious amount of cash in just one day.
When his employer is found dead from an overdose the very same day, however, Vince, desperate to save his family from financial ruin, steals the envelope and follows a series of instructions that lead him across the country to an isolated mansion in the middle of nowhere, where he finds a glutton of wealthy men waiting to gamble millions on the ultimate sport. And now he too must play the game…
One of the biggest changes Babluani has brought to this remake is the decision to use colour over black and white film. This major alteration was lambasted by critics when the film was first released; the unanimous reason being that it took away the “gritty and mysterious gloom” that highlighted the dark themes within. Deciding to use colour for the US version was presumably a way to make it more appealing to the Hollywood market, and it does, in turn, accentuate the plush settings that occasionally pop up in the film, such as hotel lobbies and the mahogany walled interior of the mansion where the main events occur. His use of colour also emphasises the stark contrasts between these lavish places, to some of the other, gloomier scenes, such as Jefferson’s dank prison cell (Rourke) or the grey, tiled walls of the killing room.
To create the musical score for his remake, Babluani hired award-winning German composer Alexander Bubenheim, who also engineered the soundtrack for prison based drama Das Experiment in 2001. Bubenheim’s string laden orchestral music jumps feverishly into electronic skittishness just at the right moments, heightening tension appropriately. A great example of this is the scene where William’s wife walks into the room to find her husband dead from an overdose; her entrance begins a brief cacophony of uncomfortable, peircing sounds, like violins being played backwards, which wouldn’t seem at all out of place in a horror film, yet still manages to fit in well here.
With such a magnificent line up of actors at his behest, it’s a shame that Babluani’s brief foray into some of their character’s back stories isn’t enough to connect with them on a deeper level. It’s an interesting gamble, sacrificing the original, fairly linear storyline for a quick dip into the other player’s lives, but these interludes are neither short enough to divert focus away from the main events, nor engaging enough to really make the audience care what happens to them. The fact that the film feels so short also pulls it down – although the story is compelling, there are a lot of frustrating loose ends leftover.
The first round of the game is almost unbearable, particularly for those who haven’t seen the French version.
Though the majority of the cast are veterans, there is just no space for them to really showcase their talents. Winstone and Statham share tense moments as two brothers who’ve played the game before, and won. Mickey Rourke, as player #17, tries to bribe his minder, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, into helping him escape (side note: when can we remove the ‘50 Cent’ part from Jackson’s name? How long did it take Dwayne Johnson?).
Sam Riley has the most screen time playing the naïve Vince Ferro, convincingly sweating buckets and trembling uncontrollably, although it borders on hammy on occasion. Casting Michael Shannon as the referee was a good choice. He’s the lunatic on a ladder, towering over the assembled players and suited gamblers, barking orders – a real catalyst for tension. Here, in this arena of death and big money, he is God, and every time he spits out the phrase “spin your cylinders!” you grind your teeth a little with anxiety.
The first round of the game is almost unbearable, particularly for those who haven’t seen the French version, or who are film purists who cover their ears and shriek when even a hint of any basic plot outline is revealed. You, the viewer, step into a world Vince himself has unwittingly entered and stomachs will churn as the ‘game’ reveals itself unapologetically.
Fans of the original may remember that the symbolic light bulb, the green light so to speak, was covered in a few black stripes. For the remake, Babluani chose instead the silhouette of a spider, a shrewd decision as spiders often represent people’s fears. The light bulb remains key in creating the hypnotic atmosphere at the beginning of each round – Babluani doesn’t change the agonisingly long moments where we and the paralyzed players stare at the bulb, waiting for it to light up; he doesn’t need to – it’s effective and drawn out, creating a rumbling build up to the inevitable.
A good film, despite some of its more obvious flaws. Many will fault it for being more mainstream than its French counterpart, claiming it unnecessary to have a legion of celebrity faces in order for the film to get attention, but it is still a gripping and original story to which Babluani and the cast (however briefly!) have done justice.
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