Assault On Precinct 13 (2005) Movie Review

The trouble with big-budget remakes is that more often than not, the films being updated for modern audiences necessitate little improvement. Rather than resurrecting and reconfiguring interesting failures, studio executives and second-rate directors instead subscribe to a lame-brained formula in which highly regarded classics and quirky genre films made by esteemed filmmakers are stripped of their unique character and thematic underpinnings, given a coat of cinematographic flash, populated with pretty actors, and simplistically streamlined so that only the basic plot structure is retained. Respect for tradition be damned, these bastardized versions trample on their precursors' venerable legacies as they pitifully attempt to parlay their predecessor's name-brand cache into box-office glory.

Such is the sorry story of Assault on Precinct 13, a reimagining of John Carpenter's 1976 genre gem (which, in turn, was modeled after Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo) about cops and criminals trapped in an old police station who are forced to work together to fend off a horde of murderous invaders. Directed by Jean-François Richet, the new film holds to that fundamental premise, though it tweaks virtually every important aspect of Carpenter's thriller for maximum vapidity. Now set in snow-bound Detroit on New Year's Eve (rather than in arid California), Richet's Assault switches the skin color of its leads - the police sergeant (Ethan Hawke's Jake Roenick) is now white, while the head criminal (Laurence Fishburne's mythic Marion Bishop) is black - and abandons Carpenter's astute portrait of uneasy, ready-to-explode racial tensions. In this version, the cops are Caucasian (including Brian Dennehy's Irish racist, who tellingly refers to the inmates as "those people"), the bad guys are African-American and Hispanic, and any friction generated from such divisions is swept under the rug in favor of ratcheting up the ho-hum action.

Richet begins his film inauspiciously, aping Joe Carnahan's Narc during Roenick's catastrophic drug bust-gone-awry in which the cop ends up cradling a fallen female colleague while the camera despairingly tilts skyward. Eight months later, Roenick is downing liquor and popping pills for breakfast, and hides behind a desk job for fear of having to once again assume responsibility for others' lives. Roenick and his colorful cohorts - including Dennehy's Jasper and Drea de Matteo's slutty secretary Iris - are preparing to enjoy Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve before closing the soon-to-be-defunct Precinct 13 for good when a bus transporting Bishop and three other thugs is forced to unload its prisoners at the station during a hellish snowstorm. Yet just as the clock strikes midnight, two officers are killed by mysterious hitmen who've infiltrated the building - henchmen, it seems, of Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne), a crooked cop who fears that if Bishop lives long enough to testify in court, his police team's illegal activities will come to light.

Switching the story's bad guys from faceless assailants to corrupt policemen affords Richet and screenwriter James DeMonaco the opportunity to soften up Bishop - who, unlike his dirty law-enforcement enemies, kills only in self-defense. But by providing concrete motivation for the siege, the new film loses the insane arbitrariness that colored everything in Carpenter's austere, no-holds-barred nail-biter. DeMonaco's heavy-handed script is awash in clichés, and its utilization of countless well-worn character arcs and narrative twists and turns (Roenick's redemption, his budding romance with Maria Bello's spunky shrink, wise-cracking peripheral players such as Ja Rule's Smiley and John Leguizamo's junkie Beck) transforms Carpenter's gritty, vicious, efficient genre film - which wasted little time dawdling on such superfluous trappings - into little more than a by-the-books action film. Focusing on mini-dramas such as Roenick's dawning realization that he can only help others by first helping himself merely weighs down what should be a brutal, uncompromisingly bleak urban Western. It also proves that the lessons learned by Zack Snyder's uniquely successful Dawn of the Dead remake - intensify the violence and tension, sprinkle in character development in small doses, don't let exposition interfere with the film's swift pacing - have been lost on Richet.

Though the director's blue-gray color palette and herky-jerky editing turn every shootout and hand-to-hand scuffle into an exercise in incoherence, this dumbed-down Assault does deliver one shocking moment of hardnosed nastiness (I won't spoil the surprise). But one fleeting glimpse of the ferocious spirit that exemplified Carpenter's original isn't nearly enough to obscure this remake's lazy reliance on mild melees and Fishburne's ridiculous cooler-than-thou shtick. By the time Richet inexplicably relocates the combat outside the now-decimated Precinct 13 stationhouse to a wide-open snow-dappled forest - thus wholly jettisoning the first half's moderately taut claustrophobia - it's clear that the primary attack being perpetrated by this 2005 version of Assault on Precinct 13 is on Carpenter's classic.

The DVD includes an absurd amount of extras, including commentary track, deleted scenes, and documentaries. It's Hawke-tastic!

What does three up and no down mean to you?


Assault On Precinct 13 (2005) Rating

" Grim "

Rating: R, 2005


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