‘Thirteen Lives’ Could Use Some Hollywood Razzle Dazzle

Hollywood treats true stories like taffy to be pulled in any direction the screenwriter wants.

The best recent example? The minds behind “Bohemian Rhapsody” toyed with Queen’s rock history so quickly and freely that the final act played out like fanfiction.

Director Ron Howard takes the opposite approach with “Thirteen Lives.”

Based on the remarkable rescue of children trapped in a Thai cave, the film moves very carefully with more than just the narrative in question. It avoids Hollywood histrionics, the kind that might land south of the truth but optimize the story for maximum impact.

This approach is wise, respectful and clearly has its limits.

Twelve Thai children and their soccer coach take an ill-advised trip to the Tham Luang cave complex early in the story. It’s an innocent way to prolong their fun after a grueling match, but they quickly find themselves trapped in a flash flood.

The monsoon season is about to begin and things are only going to get worse.

Thai divers and Navy SEALs rush to the rescue, but their efforts are thwarted by Mother Nature.

Enter John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen), British cave divers experienced in these delicate operations. They join the rescue mission, a mission that stretches excruciating day after day while the outside world prays for a miracle.

They get green and red lights from the local governor (Sahajak Boonthanakit) who knows his career is on the line if someone dies during the rescue.

A director like Howard is the perfect fit for a tech-centric project like “Thirteen Lives,” at least on paper. He is a master at visually dense storytelling, whether in space (“Apollo 13”) or heroes trapped in burning buildings (“Backdraft”).

What it fails to do here, however, is build interesting characters on the periphery. We have this embattled governor, a few concerned parents, and even locals whose understanding of the terrain might help save the day.

None of them pop like Mortensen or Farrell, who bring the movie star charisma the project badly needs.

It’s all based on true events, but that may not stop White Savior’s attacks from woke critics. They may, however, be right to criticize the one-dimensional nature of Thai characters.

Was screenwriter William Nicholson handcuffed by Identity Politics? It would not be the first time. Perhaps he feared showing the inhabitants as flawed or simply complex without being criticized.

As it stands, they’re forgettable compared to the divers in question, a group that ultimately includes Joel Edgerton. Even the scenes showing parents gasping for air don’t connect emotionally as expected.

Farrell and Mortensen give off Everyman vibes as reluctant heroes. Mortensen’s character is much more pragmatic about his chances, a nice matchup between his partner’s optimistic spirit.

The nature of the rescue itself also prevents it from being a white-knuckle thriller. This rescue is done piece by piece, which reduces some of the tension.

Movies like “The Descent” gave audiences a sense of claustrophy that never quite materializes here. It’s a missed opportunity on a massive scale, and the blame falls squarely on Howard.

What’s more successful in “Thirteen Lives?” Cultural flourishes that show how very different Thailand is from the United States. The ubiquitous prayer circles, the reluctance to cast blame at the first opportunity…the way children deal with isolation day in and day out.

Western culture embraces victimhood at every turn. Yet these tough kids knew what it took to survive the worst of circumstances.

Hit or miss: “Thirteen Lives” is smart, respectful and good enough to recommend but never sizzling enough to relish.

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