Redbox today. I went with one sole purpose: to rent a copy of Pandorum, which I hoped they would still have. They did, and while I added that to my cart, I decided to check if they had anything else in stock I might be interested in. Doing so, I saw they had something that I'd seen on shelves before and had been intrigued at it's very existence. It was XIII: The Conspiracy, and frankly, I had no idea why this story had been co-opted yet again.
For those of you who don't know, XIII was originally a Franco-Belgian comic book series written and drawn by Jean Van Hamme and William Vance, both with long careers in the European detective comics scene. But that's not from where I happen to know know XIII. In 2003, Ubisoft - a computer games company responsible for developing several outstanding titles including Splinter Cell, Prince of Persia, Brothers in Arms, Far Cry, and Beyond Good and Evil - adapted the comics into their own game, also called XIII. In it, the player assumes the identity of an amnesiac struggling to rediscover his past, the only clue to his identity being a tattoo on his chest reading XIII. The game appeared on several gaming platforms as well as PC and Mac, and is played from a FPS (First Person Shooter) perspective, and with a unique cell shaded look that was far different to watch than anything else on the market that year. It also featured the voice acting talents of David Duchovny, Eve and Adam West. Sadly, poor sales have all but guaranteed that despite it's "To be Continued" ending, no sequel has been announced and it seems extremely unlikely that there will be a followup.
Back to XIII: The Conspiracy, though. It was developed as a Franco-Canadian two-episode miniseries directed by longtime TV director Duane Clark that originally aired in France during October 2008 and aired in the States on NBC in February of 2009, though I have no recollection of that. NBC was desperate for shows even then, I'm sure. Stephen Dorff (Deuces Wild) plays the titular XIII, completely without memory but also the prime suspect in the assassination of the President of the United States (Mimi Kuzyk). On the topic of the female President, this is definitely one difference from the game, which had been essentially set up with the idea that XIII had murdered the Prez in Dallas... from a book depository... I think you know where I'm going here. The late President's brother even had a thick New England accent in the game, if you want it even more clear. Obviously the filmmakers didn't want to have that kind of controversy, so instead we see an affluent white woman with no discernible accent become the dead President (and this was filmed before the 2008 Presidential election, mind you, when Hillary Clinton was still in the running). As Rorschach might say, "Hrm."
The story splits to many different viewpoints, from the confusion of the amnesiac XIII, to Acting President Galbrain (John Bourgeois) as he and his cabinet try to track down the president's killer while also fending off political opponent (and the former President's brother) Walter Sheridan (Ted Atherton) in the upcoming election, and then to General Carrington (the excellent Stephen McHattie) who may know XIII's identity, and may or may not be his only ally in the world. Add in a conspiratorial bunch with a lot of power to make things happen (like presidential assassinations) with the face of their enforcer The Mongoose (Val Kilmer) hunting down Dorff, and you have the idea that nothing is what it seems, that everyone and everything you think you know is suspect.
And that's what XIII has always been about. It's easy to see where the inspiration for the series came from, very Jason Bourne in it's execution, right down to the close-up fight scenes where you can barely tell what's happening, it's going so fast. It's also good to see that much of the characters from the game have been faithfully interpreted for use in the series, from Mongoose, to many of the conspirators, to Carrington and several other minor characters.
Dorff, who I'd never seen good in anything before, is surprisingly likable and sympathetic as the numerical assassin who is trying desperately to find out who he is. Kilmer, as the villain Mongoose, is however a laughingstock. I'm reminded of the episode of the Simpsons where Rainier Wolfcastle responds to weight criticism with: "It's for a movie! I'm playing a fat secret agent!" That's Val. Always overrated, Val used to have his looks for fall back on. Not now. All the peripheral characters are mostly only okay, with the exception of McHattie (a longtime scene-chewer who some might remember as the original Nite Owl in Watchmen) as a perfect General Carrington. The story is surprisingly gripping for a poorly-shot, overly fading to black miniseries that WANTS to blow you away but occasionally LOOKS like the bad film it's production values aspire to. In short, it's okay. If it had been filmed by Uwe Boll, I'm sure it would have been terrible. With someone of at least average talent at the helm, it's turned out surprisingly well.
As a miniseries that owes more to it's epic source material than it's own ingenuity and originality, XIII: The Conspiracy that is still surprisingly watchable in one sitting, with enough surprises and enjoyable storytelling that you won't regret having seen it... especially if you only pay $1 to rent it. And you can't go wrong going back to purchase the XIII game, though right now it might only be available on Ebay.