XIII came to life as a graphic novel series by the Belgian writing/drawing duo of Jean Van Hamme and William Vance. The property is known to a handful of Americans because it was adapted into a first-person shooter video game in 2003. Few who played that cult-fave had any idea of the story’s illustrated origins, however. In 2008, a French-Canadian miniseries (XIII: The Conspiracy starring Stephen Dorff and Val Kilmer) adapted Van Hamme and Vance’s original storyline. That proved successful enough—in Europe, anyway—to inspire a spin-off series in 2011.
Now, with much fanfare, Reelz Channel is importing “XIII: The Series,” so we Americans can see what we’ve been missing. Heavily inspired by Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Identity novels, “XIII” introduces us to a nameless superspy trying to recover from amnesia, a lot of plastic surgery and a serious identity crisis. The only clue to his real identity is the Roman numeral tattooed on his collarbone. Played this time around by Stuart Townsend (the Irish actor probably more noted for dating Charlize Theron than for his roles in Queen of the Damned and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), our man XIII continues his quest for self-awareness.
Watching the first episode of “XIII: The Series” is a daunting task if you haven’t read the comic books or seen the original miniseries. Basically, XIII was wrapped up in the assassination of the first female president. The subsequent power struggle left him with a lot of powerful friends and some even more powerful enemies. Things calm down a bit in the series’ second episode, mostly because viewers will start to get a handle on this show’s pattern. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what crazy conspiracy XIII was involved with last time around. In “XIII,” every answer just leads to more questions. This show is about conspiracies wrapped in conspiracies stuffed with conspiracies and coated in a thin, crispy shell of conspiracy.
At the moment, it appears, XIII is busy trying to keep some sort of top-secret information hidden from former President of the United States Wally Sheridan. (Who was the Big Bad behind our kickstarter conspiracy.) While our hero doesn’t exactly know what this information is, he’s pretty sure it shouldn’t fall into Sheridan’s hands. XIII’s also on the run from his former CIA partner, Special Agent Lauren Jones (comedienne Aisha Tyler, playing it very straight)—who’s probably on his side but very likely won’t be soon ... and then will be again by the end. “XIII: The Series” figures, what’s the point of a double cross when you can have triple cross or, even better, a quadruple cross?
The show is slick in a high-def, monochromatic The Matrix-meets-Mission: Impossible kind of way. There’s plenty of action, performed with lots of stuntmen and quick-cut camera work. The camera, in fact, barely ever sits still, implying frenetic action even when there isn’t any on screen. Mostly, though, this series is about crazy, never-ending mysteries on top of mysteries. Surrender to the weekly, head-snapping, history-rewriting plot twists and you’re in for a fun, spy-fi ride.