Released in 1976, the original “Assault on Precinct 13” heralded the arrival of director John Carpenter and his penchant for suspense and annoying Casio soundtracks. The movie, about a beleaguered group of cops, criminals, and everyday citizens staving off a gang attack in an isolated and soon-to-be abandoned Los Angeles police station, has become a cult classic. It earned Carpenter the chance to make bigger films, and today this amalgam of “Rio Bravo” and “Night of the Living Dead” still stands as a testament to the man’s low budget sensibilities and knack for creating tension.
So of course they had to remake it.
Gone are the hordes of mute gang members descending upon our protagonists, as well as the sunny southern California locale. You also won’t be seeing a new spin on the beloved “vanilla twist” scene. That’s the bad news. The good news is that this new version of “Assault,” starring Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne and directed by Jean-François Richet (making his American debut), holds up quite capably in its own right. It doesn’t surpass the original, but neither does it disgrace its lineage.
The opening sequence introduces us to undercover Detroit cop Jake Roenick (Hawke), who emerges as the sole survivor of a drug bust gone bad that kills two of his partners. Eight months later, he’s jockeying a desk on New Year’s Eve in a rundown police precinct scheduled to close down for good the next day. He’s taken to clouding his guilt with booze and painkillers, to the point where his shrink (Maria Bello) opines that he doesn’t much want to be a cop anymore. If only some crisis would come along to help him get the monkey off his back and seize control of his life.
Enter Marion Bishop (Fishburne, doing his best Morpheus impression), local crime lord and natty dresser. Bishop is arrested in the film’s opening minutes for killing a dirty cop, and it isn’t long before we learn that he’s in the unique position to put the finger on a number of the dead man’s fellow corrupt policemen. Specifically, one Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne), the city’s leading anti-racketeering officer. Obviously, it’s in Duvall’s interests to see that Bishop never makes it to a witness stand.
Bishop’s arraignment is delayed due to the holidays, and when Detroit’s fabulous winter weather complicates the process of sending him downtown for holding, his bus is routed to…where else? Precinct 13. Bishop and the rest of the detainees – including John Leguizamo as a junkie, Ja Rule as the obligatory Guest Rapper, and Aisha Hinds – are locked away in the holding cells. Of course, Duvall and his men aren’t far behind, and after an abortive attempt to sneak in and kill Bishop with little fuss, they come back with the big guns. Literally. Before you can say “extreme prejudice,” Roenick and staff (Brian Dennehy as the
doomed about-to-retire cop, Drea de Matteo as the undersexed secretary, and Bello again, whose car has conveniently broken down) have to team up with Bishop and the rest of the scofflaws to repel the invaders.
Whereas the original “Assault” relied more on a feeling of apprehension and the protagonists’ increasing sense of futility, Richet seems more interested in catching his audience off guard, both with surprising bursts of brutality (you’re unlikely to see another movie this year, with the possible exception of George A. Romero’s “Land of the Dead,” with so many exploding craniums) and a casual disregard for most of the characters. It’s not advisable to get too attached to anybody, and this uncertainty – coupled with the refreshing “R”-rated shenanigans – makes things move along pretty handily
Until the end, that is. Richet and writer James DeMonaco seem to run out of interior scenarios about 3/4 of the way through, and so the action moves outdoors. Once this happens, the film loses its sense of intimacy and suspense, and becomes another routine game of good guy/bad guy hide-and-seek. There are also some obvious rip-offs (my favorite being the icicle bit from “Die Hard 2”) and, as always, it probably wouldn’t do for you to question the logic of anyone using rocket launchers and .50 caliber rifles to stage an assassination. Fortunately, a strong performance by Hawke, tight pacing, and Richet’s undeniable zest for violence distance this film from standard cops and robbers fare. Even taking into account the shopworn final act, “Assault on Precinct 13” is a nifty little action movie, and well worth a look.
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