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Thirteen Lives tells the story of the international effort to rescue 12 school-age boys and their soccer coach who became trapped inside a flooded cave system in northern Thailand in 2018.Vince Valitutti/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

  • Thirteen Lives
  • Directed by Ron Howard
  • Written by William Nicholson
  • Starring Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen and Joel Edgerton
  • Classification PG; 157 minutes
  • Opens in select theatres July 29, including the TIFF Bell Lightbox; streaming on Prime Video starting Aug. 5

There are a few ways to watch Ron Howard’s new rescue thriller Thirteen Lives, some of which dramatically improve the experience. First, there’s the choice to view the film in theatres, or when it starts streaming on Prime Video – a decision that most Canadians won’t have the luxury of making, as the movie is only opening in a handful of cinemas. But there is also the far more important option of whether to walk into Thirteen Lives without having seen the two other movies based on the exact same story: 2020′s Cave Rescue and last year’s The Rescue, both of which chronicle what’s best known as the “Thai cave rescue.”

For those who were busy spelunking during the summer of 2018, a quick refresher: after an ill-fated afternoon expedition, 12 school-age boys and their soccer coach became trapped inside a flooded cave system in northern Thailand. After an international rescue effort involving more than 10,000 people, and pivoting around the controversial decision to anaesthetize the boys with ketamine to prevent them from panicking on the dive back to safety, every single member of the group was rescued safely (though one Thai Navy SEAL diver died during an early rescue attempt, and another died months later from of a blood infection contracted during the mission).

Ron Howard enlists a handful of excellent performers for the film, including Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen, Joel Edgerton and Tom Bateman.Vince Valitutti/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

The rescue was the kind of headline-grabbing drama with the rare happy-ish ending that was guaranteed to inspire a slew of adaptations. But after having watched three different versions of the same tale now, with the knowledge that there’s a whole yet-to-air miniseries still on the way courtesy of Netflix and producer Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians), it is safe to say there can be such a thing as too much of a good story.

Certainly, Howard’s version is leagues above Irish-Thai director Tom Waller’s first-past-the-post movie Cave Rescue (also titled The Cave in other territories), a slapdash, no-frills dramatization that only scores curiosity points for casting some of the divers as themselves. Here, Howard wisely enlists a handful of excellent performers for the task, including Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen, Joel Edgerton and Tom Bateman, with each actor bringing a sturdy seriousness that immediately grounds the impossibly high stakes that the real-life rescuers faced. If Thirteen Lives was just two hours of the lads going over cave schematics and trading diving lingo, then the movie just might be an enjoyable diversion. But Howard’s film is instead two and a half very long hours that rehash much of the details and revelations already covered in Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s excellent documentary, The Rescue.

It is not just that Chin and Vasarhelyi’s doc does a better job at breaking down the rescue mission from all its possible angles, devoting just as much time to the efforts of and power struggles inside the Thai government as the successes and frustrations of the British and Australian divers who became global heroes. It’s that the doc also manages to tease out the central tension of the operation with more dramatic nuance, relatable characters and genuine emotion than Howard’s slick but hollow dramatization, too.

Thirteen Lives rehashes much of the details and revelations already covered in Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s excellent documentary, The Rescue.Vince Valitutti/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

To Howard’s credit, Thirteen Lives devotes a generous amount of face-time to Thai officials, as well as the actual family members of the boys (if not the boys themselves, whose life stories are now the intellectual property of Netflix). But Howard is also making a Hollywood-first film, putting familiar faces front and centre, even if, say, the small-scale drama centring around Farrell’s character (divorced father John Volanthen) isn’t nearly as compelling as whatever is going on with the kids trapped inside the actual dang cave.

When Howard focuses on the head-scratching mechanics of the mission itself, Thirteen Lives excels – and its many claustrophobic underwater scenes likely play excellently inside the confines of a darkened theatre. But by the time we’re in pure rescue mode, it is almost too late. What should be the highest of high-stakes dramas arrives with a drippy thud.

Again, this might all hit differently for those who only remember scant details of the original incident – and there is much to recommend in watching a heavily accented Mortensen splash around in a wetsuit while gently sparring with the always-charming Farrell. But if you want to save yourself, and your monthly Prime Video subscription fee, dive over to Disney+, where The Rescue is streaming now.

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