The miniseries XIII (NBC, February 8 and 15, 9 p.m.) comes to American television with quite the unique pedigree: It’s based on a series of Belgian graphic novels that began in 1984 and are extremely popular in Europe, although they’ve only sporadically been published in the U.S.; it was made by an alliance of French and Canadian production companies and shot in Canada, but takes place entirely in the U.S.; and despite being in English, it aired first on French TV back in October. The source material was also adapted into a video game in 2003, giving it plenty of baggage before it even arrives on U.S. airwaves.
Of course, the vast majority of the show’s audience won’t know anything about that long history, and will likely look at XIII as merely a second-rate Bourne Identity rip-off, or a pale imitation of 24. It certainly lends itself to those interpretations; the complexities of a 19-volume series are reduced to four breakneck hours (with commercials), without even tackling most of the twists and turns in the original graphic novels. It’s a condensation and alteration of those events, but it still feels rushed and convoluted, with backtracks and double-crosses coming at you nonstop. And then, after all that, the producers have the audacity to end on a cliffhanger that will likely never be resolved.
All of the rushed, awkward plotting would have gone down a lot smoother with some stronger acting, but instead of Matt Damon or Kiefer Sutherland, XIII has C-level pretty boy Steven Dorff as the title character, who wakes up in a West Virginia forest with no memory of how he got there or who he is. The only thing he has to go on at first is a tattoo on his chest of the Roman numeral XIII, which soon leads him back into a shadowy, complicated and poorly explicated conspiracy. It’s a full-on coup d’état that begins with the assassination of the U.S. president and continues through a series of terrorist attacks (including the bombing of our very own McCarran Airport tunnel), all of which happen before XIII finds himself unconscious in the woods.
- Useless explosions
- Terrorists in the NBC miniseries XIII bomb the McCarran Airport tunnel, which struck us as a pretty ineffective target when it comes to wreaking havoc in Vegas. Then again, there are a few even more pointless places they could have hit:
- -The Las Vegas Monorail
- -A 51's game in the middle of July
- -Any local indoor mall
- -The Echelon construction site
- -The Huntridge Theatre
Dorff is an extremely dull actor, and he never sells the anguish of being caught in a complex web beyond one’s understanding. He’s a genius compared to most of the supporting players, though, nearly all of whom are wooden and unconvincing (not to mention saddled with horribly stilted dialogue). Val Kilmer is the only other recognizable face, playing a villain known as the Mongoose, who serves as the conspiracy’s main enforcer. Maybe Kilmer was menacing once, but here he only looks pudgy and tired, and extremely silly when firing the character’s signature double pistols.
Veteran TV director Duane Clark (son of Dick) throws in occasional stylish visual flourishes (some grainy footage during the presidential-assassination scene almost recalls the Zapruder film), and the production at least looks fairly expensive. If so, it’s likely that all the money was spent on sets and locations rather than actors and writers. For a program with such an interesting history, XIII comes off no better than your typical basic-cable time-filler.