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‘Thirteen Lives’: Thai cave rescue film offers thrills without frills

Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen play real-life rescuers in Ron Howard’s effective thriller, based on actual events

From left, Viggo Mortensen (in the red helmet), Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman, Colin Farrell and Thiraphat Sajakul in “Thirteen Lives.” (Vince Valitutti/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)
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(3 stars)

The dramatic true saga of the Thai boys’ soccer team trapped in a flooded cave, and their rescue by an international team of divers — including, most notably, a handful of mostly British volunteers — riveted the world during the summer of 2018. Four years later, the story’s theme of overcoming great odds continues to fascinate filmmakers and audiences.

Last fall, there was “The Rescue,” a spellbinding documentary by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the husband-and-wife duo behind the mountain-climbing docs “Meru” and the Oscar-winning “Free Solo.” And this week brings not one but two features inspired by the same story: “Cave Rescue,” a reconstruction, available on demand and in select theaters, in which diver Jim Warny plays himself, and Amazon’s “Thirteen Lives,” directed by Ron Howard (“We Feed People”) and starring Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen as divers John Volanthen and Rick Stanton — the same two divers who pretty much stole the show in “The Rescue.” (On Sept. 22, Netflix will debut its own six-episode miniseries, “Thai Cave Rescue,” told from the point of view of the boys.)

To be honest, I will probably watch them all.

It’s not that “The Rescue” isn’t tough competition. Chin and Vasarhelyi laid out the story — told largely via interviews with Volanthen and Stanton, and mixing archival video footage from the Thai cave with reenactments shot in a pool in England — with a gripping intensity that is hard to beat. But Howard’s film does exactly what it needs (and sets out) to do: immerse you in the nail-biting events and the claustrophobic setting — dark, cold and muddy-water-filled caves and crevices, many of which are studded, top and bottom, by daggerlike stalactites and stalagmites. “Thirteen Lives” vividly re-creates both those physical dangers and what exactly was at stake, with a cast of young Thai actors.

But’s the film’s true genius, if that’s not too strong a word, is in centering the action on Farrell’s and Mortensen’s characters, after the scenario shifts from the ineffectual efforts of the ill-prepared Thai Navy SEALs to divers recommended by Vern Unsworth (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), an expat British cave explorer who lived near the cave. (You may recall that Elon Musk publicly insulted Unsworth after Unsworth criticized Musk’s plan to build a mini-submarine for the rescue.) Joel Edgerton also has a prominent role, as an Australian diver and anesthesiologist who played a critical — and, for some who may not recall the story’s details, surprising — part in the rescue.

Farrell and Mortensen do an admirable job of capturing not just the quirky personalities and eccentricities of Volanthen and Stanton but their nerdy appeal: They’re elite yet amateur heroes who, over a lifetime of practicing a strange niche hobby, have become the best in the world at what they do for fun (which, it should be noted, is something most sane people wouldn’t do for any amount of money). It’s made clear in “The Rescue” that these guys are, like elite mountain climbers, a — how shall I put this? — special breed. In short: They both become more calm, centered and focused under circumstances that would immediately freak the rest of us out.

“Thirteen Lives” is a solid achievement, technically and dramatically, using a ticktock timeline and periodically superimposing on-screen maps of the miles-long cave system to build tension. Like its protagonists, it isn’t flashy but is all business. It gets the job done with a minimum of histrionics, yet a mountain of suspense.

PG-13. Available on Amazon. Contains some strong language and unsettling images. In Thai, English and French without subtitles. 147 minutes.

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