“XIII” Marks The Spot … For Political Intrigue

It’s one thing to find yourself embroiled in a deadly government conspiracy, but to not even know how you fit into it — or even be able to remember your own name — is unimaginably worse. TV miniseries-type worse, in fact.

That’s the predicament Stephen Dorff’s character finds himself in during the two-part, four-hour action thriller XIII, which airs Feb. 8 and 15 on NBC. He plays a man found in a forest, wounded and with no memory of who he is. The only identifying mark is a Roman numeral XIII tattooed on his chest.

Compounding the intrigue is the recent assassination of the first female U.S. president, who was gunned down by a sniper during a Veterans Day speech. Given his advanced fighting skills and killer instincts, the mysterious unknown man makes for a good suspect.

On his tail is a whole hoard of government goons, including an operative with the code name Mongoose. Val Kilmer brings a steely iciness to the role of a man who knows just how dangerous his prey can be, because they share similar deadly skills … and body art. The man known only as XIII must work to uncover his true identity, which will also help reveal the secret that threatens the entire U.S. government.

Lending support is Caterina Murino (Casino Royale) as a woman who gets caught up in the conspiracy while trying to help XIII, and Stephen McHattie (Seinfeld) as an Army general whose allegiance is unclear.

For those thinking this sounds like a mere retread of the Jason Bourne movies, or even a trimmed-down 24, rest assured that XIII has roots that stretch back more than two decades. The story is based on a wildly popular French comic book series that first appeared in the 1980s. It also saw life as a successful video game in 2003, with David Duchovny providing the voice of XIII.

Producer Jay Firestone had been a longtime fan of the comic book — and comics, in general — and thought the story’s mix of “cool action” and complex characters would translate well to the screen. He points specifically to the relationship between XIII and Mongoose, which goes far beyond the standard hero-villain conflict.

“The interesting thing about both characters is, they both think they’re the good guy, and they both think the other one’s the bad guy,” Firestone said. “That’s why it’s exciting. Val plays a very dedicated character, somebody who really believes that what he is doing is right for his country, and he’s willing to sacrifice. And Stephen Dorff’s [character] says, ‘I’m doing what’s right for my country. I’m willing to sacrifice for my country.’ They both have the same sort of commitment to their mission and the same belief that they’re right.”

In casting the leads, Firestone said that with his physicality and intensity, Dorff — whom he had known for several years — was an ideal choice to play XIII. His decision was later vindicated when the creators of the comic told him they wished they could go back and redraw the character to more resemble the actor.

Kilmer, the production’s biggest star, doesn’t often play a villain. But Firestone remembered Kilmer’s portrayal as a troubled thief in 1995’s crime epic Heat and knew he could bring something special to the role. Coincidentally, Dorff and Kilmer had just completed a film together, Felon, before shooting began, giving their working relationship a helpful familiarity.

“If I had to picture in my mind what XIII looked like, it was Stephen,” Firestone said. “I was a big fan of him when he [played] the bad guy in Blade. He can be a very serious guy. And Val playing a bad guy is fun. … It was actually a big push. I had to fight to get him to play a bad guy. I think Val wants to play heroes right now. But he enjoyed the role. He really got into it.”

Firestone is hoping Kilmer loved the role enough to want to play it again, this time on the big screen in a Mongoose-centered spinoff. Dorff also could reprise his role if a prospective XIII series comes together. Both projects are in the planning stages.

If they end up not materializing, however, Firestone is certain it won’t be because of lack of fan interest. When XIII aired in France last year, it pulled in record ratings for the network, and he expects similar success for its U.S. bow.

“It’s done so well everywhere in the world that there’s already a big cry for a series,” he said. “It could branch out into a lot of things.”

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