I’m not a John Carpenter completist; movies like his Prince of Darkness and Ghosts of Mars took away any possible desire to become one. So I’ve never seen Carpenter’s original, 1976 version of Assault on Precinct 13, and therefore can’t compare this remake to its minor cult-classic parent, which was itself an uncredited reworking of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. (The new film pays homage by throwing a bit of Dean Martin — one of the stars of the Hawks film — on the soundtrack.)
This time round, the story has been altered so that those laying siege to Precinct 13 have been transformed from generic gang members to generic corrupt cops. The switch seems to have put some people’s knickers in a twist, since they presume the plot carries an anti-police agenda (proving once again that a lot of people simply have too much time on their hands).
And I think it’s safe to assume that the original film’s L.A. locale precluded the Detroit-based remake’s snowstorm setting. I don’t know that either change is especially significant, but both serve the film fairly well in their ability to make an utterly implausible story merely implausible.
Otherwise, all that’s been done is to take a B picture with a B-picture cast and redo it as a minor A picture with a minor A-list cast. Assuming you’re willing to go with the film’s logical and narrative gaps, not to mention the outbursts of obvious plot set-ups and high cliche quotient, this nicely nasty little suspenser works better than it should. (At least it does once the film gets past its bargain basement Vertigo set-up.)
The opening — with Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke) as an undercover cop working a sting on some Russian drug dealers — is just not very good. Part of the problem is that it’s too obviously a pretext for establishing Jake as a Troubled Cop in need of Redemption. And it hardly helps that director Jean-Francois Richet (whose work in his native France seems not to have penetrated the U.S. market) shoots the whole movie with the patented jittery-cam — the kind so beloved by filmmakers who think a film is edgier if the camera appears to have been operated by someone with the shakes.
Fortunately, the story then moves on to the main plot, and at this point in the film, someone apparently invested in a tripod to steady the camera. Sure, the plot’s utilitarian: arrest the coolest and baddest bad guy possible, Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), cue the snowstorm, bring in the skeleton-staffed police station that’s being shut down at midnight, develop Jake’s self-confidence problem from the prologue, etc. But it’s also slick, efficient and enjoyable.
It helps that the cast is generally capable of playing even the most transparent material with admirably straight faces. Even Brian Dennehy manages to deliver his groaningly obvious plot-device — the announcement of his retirement — without bursting into laughter, and that’s a major accomplishment.
Oh, all right, Gabriel Byrne, who is a fine actor given the right material, is on auto-pilot doing his American shtick (he may not sound like an American, but he’s chewing gum, so he must be one, right?). And John Leguizamo’s twitchy junkie is just plain annoying, while Jeffrey “Ja Rule” Atkins as a pimp who always refers to himself in the third person is rather more than annoying. On the other hand, Maria Bello manages to turn her two-dimensional role as Jake’s psychiatrist into something better than the script actually offers.
It’s difficult to tell whether or not Richet is really a new director to watch, as a few critics have claimed. Apart from the jittery-cam business, there’s no clear stylistic signature to the film, unless one credits to style his slightly unsavory propensity to linger over bullet wounds and blood oozing into the snow. The direction is certainly competent, at least within the limitations of the screenplay.
Those limitations are sometimes pretty extreme, especially near the end. As the film leaves the confines of the urban Detroit police station, we’re suddenly in the deepest of forestland. Apparently, the filmmakers — unlike Jason Schwartzman in I [Heart] Huckabees — are able to transcend both time and space, especially if it makes for a more picturesque ending.
If that doesn’t bother you too much, there’s every chance you’ll have a reasonably good time with Assault on Precinct 13. Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, and for some drug content.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke