For the vast majority of human souls on the planet, good fortune or bad luck can be readily rationalized: “It’s the will of [fill in your own deity]” or “it’s fate, there’s nothing I can do.” Those in power, be they religious, government leaders, despots or mob chiefs understand that the key to their continued success is scaring the bejesus out of their underlings with all manner of threats (tactical, physical, emotional, psychological) so that “my will be done.”
Triumphs as a playground bully may well lead to the taste for ever-increasing domination over the weak and cowardly. What world conflict today can’t trace its origins back to throwing sand in the face of someone who “deserves it” or won’t fight back? On the other side of that despicable coin are those who—once demeaned—realize that nothing matters more during their time on Mother Earth than tasting from the oh-so-sweet cup of revenge. And like all elixirs, once tasted, the appetite for another dram becomes insatiable.
Knowing all of this gave original writers Chookiat Sakveerakul and Eakasit Thairatana the inspiration for their novel 13: Game of Death. Understanding their ideas and point of view allowed director Daniel Stamm (who also co-wrote the screenplay with David Birke) the vision and desire to bring this extraordinary cautionary tale to the big screen.
To be sure, the writing tends to be a little overdone. Protagonist Elliot Brindle (Mark Webber works through his transformation from malleable wimp to “not gonna take it anymore” with commendable skill) has just so much going against him (gargantuan debts, care of mentally challenged younger brother, soon to marry his pregnant girlfriend, abusive/reclusive dad, long-dead mom…) that his early choice for salvation from all woes has no element of “should I or shouldn’t I?”
But the road to better days is paved with danger: led on by an all-seeing/hearing voice via cellphone, Elliot merely has to successfully complete 13 tasks and then live richly and happily ever after—think The Picture of Dorian Gray pecuniary edition.
Stamm has deliberately set the show in motion using a circus-like atmosphere: from the Barnum and Bailey ringtone announcing the voice’s next instruction—replete with carnival-barker’s tone—to the chase scene in “festive” trucks, the horrors to come (those not fond of decapitations and limb “surgery” may have to look elsewhere for a few moments) are wisely balanced with silly and absurd.
As Elliot gamely moves on from swallowing a fly (a wonderfully childlike echo, linking boyhood to manhood in a single swallow) to criminal acts, it’s inevitable that the authorities are brought into the loop even as this “game” becomes more and more deadly.
In a fine twist of storytelling, it is not abundantly clear if Detective Chilcoat (playing characters who know more than they reveal comes easily to veteran Ron Perlman) is either a methodical upholder of the law or may be playing a game of his own…
The other key component in the character department comes from Devon Graye’s readily believable portrait of Elliot’s brother Michael—those with mental illness are never as “challenged” as most would like to believe, having sexual, financial and emotional wants and needs just like the so-called normal segment of society.
Not surprisingly, the last challenge is the most difficult of all. No spoilers here, but the notion of who really controls our actions and what anyone might do to get out of a life that seems to be collapsing all around them and—with that new-found freedom—finally be secure, has, no doubt, been the pipe dream by almost all of humanity. However, once in that lofty place of no worries, might those lucky few start preventing others from attaining their success? For if everyone was content, who could we look down on? JWR