Review: XIII 1×1

A Bourne Identity rip-off that will make you think you're losing your memory, too


In Canada: Wednesdays, 10pm, Showcase

Hello, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Jason Bourne and today I would like to apologise to you and everyone else in the world for my legacy.

No, not The Bourne Legacy, although someone should probably apologise for that. I’m talking about the effect I’ve had on movies and television throughout the world.

Now, I used to be a super cool, secret agent, able to fight, rewire things, break into buildings, hack computers – the works. But I got shot, I lost my memory, my identity and even my real name, and it took me three movies and an awful lot of fighting and travelling around the world to get it back.

In the world of movies and television, the result has been an awful lot of films and shows in which people, particularly secret agents, lose their memories and then have to fight and travel around the world a lot to get them back, usually in a not particularly interesting way.

I’m sorry to say that now, the bottom of the barrel has been scraped. Canada, a country whose last contribution to the spy genre was InSecurity, has decided with the help of the French to make XIII, a show in which Stuart Townsend – once so promising in things like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Queen of the Damned, before ruining it all with a remake of The Night Stalker – plays a secret agent who loses his memory and has to do an awful lot of fighting and travelling around the world to get it back.

And if you watch it, you’ll know what my life is like – because you’ll feel like you’re losing your memory, too. Here’s a trailer – just for fun, see if you can spot the differences between it and the trailer for the XIII mini-series made by the same people that aired a few years ago:

XIII is an hour-long drama series based on Jean Van Hamme’s adrenaline-fueled graphic novels, which have sold more than 13 million copies worldwide since the first volume was published 25 years ago. Known only by the Roman numeral he was assigned, XIII (Stuart Townsend) is a skilled and lethal secret agent who escapes from an Eastern European Rendition Camp with a surgically altered face and an identity handed to him by a mysterious stranger.

Recruited to a secret organization committed to bringing down the United States Government, XIII has no memory of his past, how he was trained or why. Hunted by a dark anti-government organization, he quickly realizes that the closer he gets to uncovering the riddle, the more complex and deadly the mission becomes.

While living through an ever-evolving government conspiracy, XIII’s quest is to discover his true identity at any cost.

Is it any good?
It’s one of the worst things I’ve seen in over year. Absolutely appalling. It makes literally no sense. The fight scenes are more like pat-a-cake slapping matches. The fact it’s a co-production with France’s Canal+ means that a good portion of the cast are French for no good reason, and are neither good actors in English nor even usually intelligible. Even if you watch XIII with steely concentration, you’ll get to a scene and wonder if you missed something because our hero, XIII, will make bizarre leaps of logic, handily flashback to events (despite his amnesia) whenever it’s handy and talk about events you definitely haven’t seen happen but you’re supposed to have and which in no way explain how you end up in the next scene. It’s like a loose collection of scenes stuck together because they seem cool, not because there’s any internal logic.

We start off in a rendition camp in ‘Eastern Europe’ for no good reason. He could have just woken up on the sea shore or something and we’d have been saved the first 10 minutes – except that would obviously be The Bourne Identity. Despite the fact everyone knows what one of those looks like now thanks to Camp X-Ray being on the news, the producers give it the kind of security that the average MacDonald’s would laugh at. While he’s there, XIII gets to work out a lot and get really buff, despite the fact the protein content of his one daily meals of rice and peas would probably have him looking like an America’s Next Top Model contestant inside of a week.

Our hero is rescued by a strange kickboxing French woman who turns out to be working for an American president – for there are many in this – and fights him a lot to get hold of a ring and a wristwatch and a handkerchief. She gets him to help by giving him a photograph of a little boy. And then he goes to New York where he meets another French woman who he knows but she doesn’t remember because he had a different face then, but he decided to change it because that’s the kind of thing you do as a secret agent apparently. There’s a memory chip and remember what happened last time with the memory chip? Cos I do and I have amnesia. Then he gets shot and then he’s okay but his hand’s a bit wobbly.

What? How…? No, we’re moving on. No time for plausible explanation.

Meanwhile, the CIA and the president and a former president are all trying to outfox one another to solve the assassination of another former president – or did one of them order it? – and they all seem to know who XIII is even though he doesn’t. But they don’t want to tell him, because… Why aren’t they telling him? No, still no good reason.

It’s bollocks. Just dreadful, nonsensical stuff that really only makes sense in Belgian graphic novels and computer games, but not on television. Townsend is fine as an actor, despite his dodgy US accent, but clearly not a martial artist; Aisha Tyler should stick to the animated spy world of Archer because she’s just as bad; everyone else is just appalling. The action is barely exciting an alternates between okay but obviously ‘inspired’ by The Bourne Identity to dreadful whenever the stunt people are replaced by the actors.

If this were a book, you’d buy it in an airport, read it while you were on holiday, and curse the impulsiveness that led you to having something so dreadful to read by the pool for the next fortnight. Fortunately, this is a television show and you don’t have to watch a single minute of it.