Hollywood version of Thai cave rescue from 2018 makes most of the premise
Ron Howard has a reputation for taking real-life subjects like Formula One or dramatic space missions and spinning it into cinematic gold, and the Oscar winner has worked his magic again with 'Thirteen Lives'.
The 'Rush' and 'Apollo 13' director is the steady hand behind the camera for this big-budget adaptation of the Thai cave rescue that gripped the world in 2018, and this telling of the story is every inch the glossy Hollywood adaptation you'd expect.
'Thirteen Lives' pulls the oldest trick in the book of mining real-life heroics for drama, and this is an exceptionally well-made portrayal of one of the most extraordinary news stories of recent times.
The secret to the success of 'Thirteen Lives' is simple; it trades on the real life outcome we're familar with, and instead takes the time to flesh out the extraordinary people at the centre of this ordeal.
Colin Farrell has never been better in the role of English diver John Volanthen, with the Dub in top flight.
Farrell happens to look identical to the real life John Volanthen, and between this and 'The Batman', Farrell has settled into a wonderful character actor era that suits him well.
Farrell trades his natural movie star charisma for humility, and Farrell does a brilliant job at selling just how risky and dangerous the conditions were in the cave.
The ever-regal Viggo Mortensen also turns in a strong performance as cave diver extraordinaire Rick Stanton, and the interplay between Mortensen and Farrell is a key part of the film's success.
Farrell, Mortensen and Joel Edgerton are fantastically cast, and our leading men do a great job of bringing a sense of humanity to an extraordinary story.
The unfolding drama made for gripping viewing as it unfolded across the news cycle in 2018, and one of the masterstrokes of 'Thirteen Lives' is allowing us to get into the nitty-gritty of the effort it took to get the young Thai football team and their coach out of a labyrinthine cave system.
There is a relentless spectre of inevitability present in the film, and the viewer is always acutely aware that the film is a race against the clock.
Like 'Dunkirk', time becomes the villain of the piece, and the mad rush to rescue the team from the cave as a monsoon bears down on the region is a premise tailor-made for Hollywood.
'Thirteen Lives' makes the most of this premise, and in some style.
At 2 and a half hours, viewers would be inclined to write the film off as overlong on principle, but the film is remarkably well-paced, and the film largely earns its run time.
The last hour of the film is action-packed, and when our heroes are trying to navigate the impossible conditions, the film starts to sing.
If 'Thirteen Lives' has a star, it's Ron Howard, with the Oscar-winning director perhaps the best of his kind at mining drama out of a situation we already know the outcome of.
There is a stately feel to 'Thirteen Lives' and every scene has a sense of threat and danger attached.
Action scene geography is what a film like this lives or dies on, and it is crucial to know where each character is in relation to the rest of the scene.
The film also provides helpful graphics that lets viewers know where the divers are in relation to the stranded group, which makes the film easy to follow.
In the claustrophobic conditions of the cave, knowing the layout is vital, and Howard does a fantastic job at conveying how horrible the conditions were.
At its best, 'Thirteen Lives' recalls other classic "man versus the element" films like 'The Perfect Storm', 'Fitzcarraldo' and 'All Is Lost', and is in conversation with Howard's other efforts like 'Apollo 13' in the stirring drama stakes.
If 'Thirteen Lives' does have a problem, it gives the titular thirteen lives relative short shrift.
The film is about the divers who volunteered to venture into the cave to rescue them and we see very little of how the boys survived the hellish conditions for so long.
There is almost another 'Cast Away' style film to be told there, and we feel this was cut for the sake of expediency, but it is a shame that the film didn't have the confidence to tell another survival story.
The film does make an effort to show how the rescue effort was a large humanitarian effort, with the film taking on an almost Robert Altman-style interwoven story about the political, agricultural, and logistical side of the story, and it feels fairly underdeveloped in comparison to how fleshed out the main characters are.
Despite this fairly major quibble, 'Thirteen Lives' is some of the very best popcorn cinema Hollywood has to offer.
The final act is home of the most crowd-pleasing, punch-the-air satisfying action beats Hollywood has produced in years, and the film is an instant addition to the "dad movie hall of fame."
'Thirteen Lives' feels like a film that were it made 25 years ago, it would have gained a steady audience over repeat viewings on TV and word of mouth ala 'The Shawshank Redemption', and this unashamedly populist thriller is the sort of film that is sorely missing from the film landscape these days.
Despite being a Prime Video/MGM release, 'Thirteen Lives' has the appeal of a movie you'll flick on with 45 minutes left on TV while channel hopping and you'll gladly sit down and watch the rest of despite knowing the ending.
For film fans who feel Hollywood films have become too interested in chasing the bottom line instead of telling gripping human stories, 'Thirteen Lives' is a reminder that good, solid films are still being made.