When I saw Gela Babluani’s marvelous feature debut 13 Tzameti many years ago I remember feeling a rush of euphoria. This was a small, gritty, tense, devious, fiendish film that got beneath my skin. It was the kind of film I would make every one of my friends watch with the full confidence that they would love it just as much as I did. That film inspired a kind of fanatical following among my friends, and it features some of the most tense, exciting, emotionally draining scenes I have ever seen. From its direction to its acting it is a pure, perfect film.
When I heard that Babluani was coming to America to make a feature film, I was ecstatic. When I found out it would be a remake of that brilliant debut, I was cautiously optimistic. After all, I have seen both versions of Funny Games by Michael Haneke and found that the English version was a worthy follow-up which was able to close the language/emotional gap I felt in the first film.
So it is endlessly depressing to have to watch you, 13, and think about the fact that the man who created one of my favorite films of the last decade is responsible for you as well. However, part of me does wondering how much of you he is responsible for. Maybe it is just my love blinding me, but there are certain aspects of you that make me feel as though you might be the result of producer/studio interference.
Your plot remains ostensibly the same as your French-language predecessor. A young man named Vince (Sam Riley), now an electrician instead of a roofer, finds out that the old man he is working for is awaiting a package that will lead him to an immense fortune. This appeals to him, as his father is in the hospital and needs another operation, and his family is already on the verge of having to sell their house. So when the old man overdoses on heroin and dies, Vince steals the letter and begins to follow a trail of breadcrumbs that will lead him to a deadly game of chance.
I am being willfully vague here, even though I have no reason to be, because you tell the audience the secret to your fiendish tale in the first scene. Whereas 13 Tzameti went out of its way to put the audience into the shoes of the character so the emotional, visceral impact of the truth of his situation would hit us just as hard as it hit him, you begin with the penultimate climactic moment and then time-warp backward with the detestable narrative device “X Days Earlier.” Hence all of the intrigue and tension of the first few scenes is sapped, replaced instead with a sense of inevitability and slight boredom.
This is one of the first places that I feel the producers/studio (I’m going to use the name Prudio as a means of shortening this idea) began to meddle. It seems logical that Prudio looked at an early cut of this film that was more faithful to the original and felt the slow beginning was a detriment. As such they possibly removed an entire day from this first act, and inserted that first scene as a means of saying “hey, guys, look what’s coming!” Instead, they shot themselves in the foot and created a stultifying void instead of a gripping first act.
From there things proceed much as with the original, only without the sense of cloistered dread. The vaguely stately gamesmanship of the original is subverted by the addition of a number of guards who cradle machine guns and do nothing else. Characters are given backstories seemingly at random, and these backstories require cutaways that detract from any sense of mystery and absolutely decimate your pacing. Here again, the touch of Prudio can be felt. In the original there was a greater amount of interplay between the protagonist, Vince, and his ‘handler’ in between rounds (again, I am being vague even though I have no reason to be because I respect the original enough not to want to give away the secret). This helped us to gain an insight into the game at the same time that we were able to sympathize with Vince. You, however, seem to forget about Vince for your entire second act, relegating Riley to playing a scared looking or tired looking man depending on the scene.
Another bit of evidence related to Prudio interference – a countdown from three somehow, glaringly, begins at two. Its as though the Prudio was so eager to get to the next “action” scene that they failed to realize that all of the tension in this film is from the waiting.
That you somehow managed to keep your ending intact is a small miracle, though one that is muted slightly with the inclusion of a weird voice-over-montage that wraps everything up perhaps too neatly. Again, Prudio’s work?
The most glaringly and jarringly and infuriatingly detrimental aspect of your updating, however, is the soundtrack. Here, above all other things, I am almost 100% certain Prudio must have been involved. There is, at times, a very subtle and purposeful score, and yet time and again it is drowned out by a thunderous, boisterous, bombastic score that is completely at odds with the tone of your visual aspect. Electric guitars, thudding drums, menacing and ugly beats that sometimes come close to drowning out your dialogue. At other times there is a strain of overly emotional pablum that cannot have been what Babluani wanted. Right? I can only hope.
Your actors – a star-studded cast of usually reliable performers including Riley, Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, Ray Winston – all do their small part to elevate your proceedings, but between the changes to script and the odd choices of editing and pacing and tone, I just feel like everyone is slightly lost. Everyone except Michael Shannon, who plays the literal and proverbial man in the chair with a twitch oddness that somehow makes the game scenes more bearable.
You are a deep, painful disappointment to me. I pray that I am right regarding the meddling you must have undergone from Prudio, and that Babluani wasn’t just a one hit wonder. Somewhere beneath your odd story choices and ugly score is a good movie, a more mainstream but still interesting version of the movie I love. But unfortunately that glimmer, that hint of something better cannot make up for what you actually are.
You have simultaneously managed to be a bad movie, but also made me doubt a previously lauded director’s talent. For that, I cannot forgive you.
Brian J. Roan