Four hours is an awful lot of your lifetime to devote to the enervating switchbacks of "XIII," a made-for-television thriller airing on NBC Sunday night and the Sunday following. Based on a popular 1984 European comic book that also inspired a video game, it stars Stephen Dorff as yet another superspy with amnesia (see also: "The Bourne Identity," "The Long Kiss Goodnight") and Val Kilmer as his equally gifted nemesis, known as "The Mongoose." I imagine that there is some sort of mathematical correctness to the plot, but as a viewing experience it is vague, confusing and preposterous to the point that by the time all was revealed -- or nearly all, since the film ends on an unresolved note -- I had long ceased to care.
To say that the assassination of the country's first female president and a subsequent wave of unclaimed terrorist attacks lead to a conspiracy of "people in government and from the highest echelons of corporate America," as one character describes it, is to say only that nothing unusual is proposed here.
As the product of a pair of Belgians working in the 1980s -- Jean Van Hamme and William Vance, who created the original comic -- its picture of America is very much, you know, the product of a pair of Belgians working in the 1980s; it has a Babelfish quality. (The film itself is a Canadian-French co-production not originated by NBC.) This adaptation, by Philippe Lyon and David Wolkove, adds the Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security (operating out of an underground lair equipped with sophisticated torture devices), laptop computers and a nuclear bomb.
Directed by Duane Clark, son of Dick, the film begins hyperactively -- it's the assassination sequence -- mixing film stocks in a style born from old music videos. It creates tension, I guess, but it is the sort of tension that aspirin is made for. Had I not been on a mission of my own to watch until the end, the opening would have driven me off.
It quiets down soon afterward, as Dorff's character, bullet-wounded and lacking a memory, is rescued by a kind of Ma and Pa Kent from a treetop into which he has parachuted, a tattoo of the Roman numeral XIII his only identification. Men with guns show up soon enough, however, and the film begins its alternation of slow and fast, the slow seeming calculated to fill time and the fast involving running, jumping, slashing and shooting.
Dorff is rather appealing -- I liked the fact that he underplayed his clenched-jaw part -- and I was encouraged for a while by his scenes with Italian actress Caterina Murino as a photo shop proprietor who helps him sort through some clues. Murino provides the film's only moments of humor -- "Nice lamination," she says when CIA agent Lucinda Davis comes busting into her shop -- and somehow communicates a real character in a sea of pasteboard. If Night 2 is less rewarding than Night 1, it is in no small part because of her absence.
Kilmer, who seems to be modeling his career on that of the later, lesser choices of Marlon Brando, does not actually have all that much to do. I recall his graceful comic channeling of Elvis Presley in "Top Secret!," and though he is larger now, he is still most convincing in the action scenes. These are all well-choreographed and free of the burden of meaning much. "XIII" does its best with the least on its mind.
When: 9 p.m. Sunday and 9 p.m. Feb. 15
Rating: Not rated