Making a film about the cutthroat world of Russian Roulette is a little like making a gambling thriller about the card game War. In both the gameplay is so brutally simple that strategy and skill don’t play much of a part. Sure, statistical considerations and laws of probability come into play, but it really comes down to blind luck. Despite the complications and problems endemic in translating this blunt instrument of a sport to the big screen, writer-director Géla Babluani nevertheless scored a big international hit and cleaned up at Sundance and the Venice Film Festival with his 2005 Russian Roulette drama 13 Tzameti. Like an unwise Russian Roulette player, Babluani couldn’t help but push his luck with 13, an Americanized remake that has been sitting on a shelf gathering dust since it was completed around three years ago.
Sam Riley stars as a desperate young man who stumbles his way into a mysterious competition he doesn’t realize is an epic, multi-player variation on Russian Roulette until it’s too late for him to pull out. The weak-kneed Riley fatally lacks the steely-eyed glare of competitors like Ray Winstone (who is in the competition at the behest of gambler brother Jason Statham) and Mickey Rourke, a cowboy sprung from jail to risk his life in the competition.
13’s premise has a certain pulpy allure; when an overqualified Michael Shannon calls out the rules of each game it plays a little like a demented variation on “Simon Says.” It’s just too bad the film takes itself so seriously. An action thriller that can’t think of anything for Jason Statham to do beyond look grim and serious in a suit and hat suffers from a fatal dearth of imagination. Simple and direct to a fault, 13 is brutal and uncompromising, but sometimes that’s not enough, and any film that keeps Jason Statham from having fun and kicking ass is operating in direct conflict against the will of the universe. For a film about a “sport” where every competition is literally a matter of life and death, the oddly inert, suspense-free 13 is strangely lacking in urgency.