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You remember ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. It's the John Carpenter film that a lot of younger viewers have unfortunately skipped. Too bad for them since it is one of the greatest action films on the 1970s - a film that starts out grim and surreal and has you cheering by the end. As a film it's downright iconic, with cops and criminals, black and white (rare in those days) teaming up to kick ass and take names. It was the type of film that intentionally blurred all questions of race of allegiance and stuck to the classic model that Carpenter would continue to hone in later action-inspired films like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, VAMPIRES and GHOSTS OF MARS. It wasn't so much about people learning to grow as it was noting that when it comes to survival, all trivialities get put to rest. There is good and there is bad. Pick a side and fight for your life.
29 years after Precinct 13 and audiences alike were assaulted, we have been given a remake courtesy of Rogue Pictures, the exploitation arm of Focus Features, which in turn is the independent arm of Universal Studios. Great, I'm only on the second paragraph of this review and I'm already dizzy.
Why should you be excited about the new ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13? Well, it happens to be a damn good film in it's own right. In truth, calling the film a remake may be unfair and create some negative connotations. This film does what many remakes should do. It only takes the basic plot elements of the original - a police precinct is under siege, cops and criminals alike have to fend off the invaders. It takes the bare bones of Carpenter's film and allows the flesh and meat to develop on it's own.
We start out a few months back. It's all saturated in yellows, browns and ambers. Soak it up because the bulk of the film is washed in blacks and greys. Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke) is an undercover cop trying to take down some nasty drug pushers. His crew is found out though and Roenick winds up having to chase the dealers down. In the process, both of his men are killed.
Eight months later, Roenick is a sergeant on desk duty at Detroit's vacant Precinct 13. The complex is deemed so worthless that at midnight, the whole thing is going to close up shop. Roenick will then transfer to another precinct where he hopes to do as little work as possible. He drinks and pops painkillers like they were M&M's. Because of a leg injury during the previous scuffle, he has not been back on the streets. But that is merely pretense for the bigger issue. Riddled with guilt over bad decisions that led to the death of his crew, he doesn't ever want to be faced with such responsibility again. But like my grandfather used to say, "Wish in one hand, crap in the other. See what piles up first."
Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne) is a self-described gangster and tough guy, which is good since he has a girl's first name and a clergyman's last name. A cop approaches him with a mysterious ultimatum which Bishop flatly refuses. He pays for it with his life. This would be a good point to note the violence in the film, i.e. there's a lot of it. Don't worry about any politically correct pussifying of the classic. If anything, it's even bloodier. This is the type of film where fifteen minutes in, a man is stabbed. In the neck. With a pen. While in church.
Unfortunately, Bishops creative Catholic cutting doesn't go unnoticed and he is captured by police. He has the goods on some people and he knows that if he spends any time inside, he will surely be killed. No one is waiting for that to happen. Because of a blizzard, the roads are impassable and the bus is diverted to Precinct 13 which despite being under-staffed and under-armed, is obliged to lock the criminals up until morning. But the bus was followed to the station. Soon, gunmen are trying to break the perimeter, all communication to the outside (including walkie talkies and cell phones) is cut and snipers are ready to pick off anyone who tries to make a run for it.
The natural assumption is that Bishop's henchmen are trying to break him out. Turns out it isn't Bishop's men at all, but a bunch of dirty cops. Bishop has been involved with criminal enterprises with celeb supercop Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne, sporting a pretty cool accent) for years and first thing in the morning, he's going to spill the beans to the first lawyer he sees in exchange for a lighter sentence. Now, many of the cops on the take, which number in the dozens, are shooting up the precinct, willing to kill even the cops inside in order to avoid jail time (all of this is explained in the trailer).
This is the biggest difference from the original ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. In Carpenter's film, the killers were a group of silent psychopaths who made an odd blood oath before going on a murder spree. The standoff itself was the consequences of one man's revenge for what is still one of the most shocking moments of on-screen violence in film history.
Here, the killers have faces for the most part. Duvall is conflicted, though now overpoweringly so. He warns his deputy "We will have to carry this for the rest of our lives." But then, all emotion is put to rest when he goes on, "But I can live with this more than I can a cellmate." Pretty much sums it all there, doesn't it? Still, director Jean-Franï¿½ois Richet keeps the bad guys concealed for the most part. He limits Bryne's screen time to a few choice scenes. It is not his presence that is the bigger issue so much as the threat of his presence. Many of the bad cops are concealed under their heavy body armor, their black camouflage and night goggles. They are every bit the dangerous robotic drones as any science fiction film. Still, the presence of the occasional humans is important this time out as it suggests the obvious conundrum. If these are cops, and cops are fiercely loyal, can everyone within Precinct 13 be trusted, even if it comes to killing their comrades? Probably not. The threat is very real. One thing that is mostly unspoken is that nobody knows how many cops are involved in the conspiracy. We don't know if all the cops surrounding Precinct 13 have been taken care of, or if indeed there are more who were on the take. Even if Roenick and his friends get through the night, it's likely they will not have a very safe career in law enforcement.
This is just one of many good choices Richet makes in the director's chair. With the help of Art Director Nigel Churcher (also responsible for RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE), he paints a truly chilling scene. The idea of setting the film in Detroit (courtesy of writer James DeMonaco) is an ingenious touch. At the risk of alienating more potential Horror Express readers, I have to say Detroit is one of the biggest urban hellholes the United States has. The weather offers all of the pitfalls of the Midwest and is not helped by the cool fronts coming off the Great Lakes. The city is underpopulated and there is rampant unemployment since many of the big motor companies have left Americans in the lurch in place of cheaper overseas labor. As a result, many of the buildings are either faceless industrial complexes or shells that look like they've barely survived a wartime disaster. Rampant crime infests the metropolis as it does most urban areas stricken by hard times. Sorry Detroit, most of you are good people. It's not your fault, much of this has been done to you. The point being that if you wanted an isolated and damn near apocalyptic setting, Detroit is your city.
Another great touch is setting it in a fierce snowstorm. This is a cold-looking film with wind so strong, it looks like the snow could cut people down. It also allows the cops to hide within the harsh conditions, they stay concealed in the night only to emerge guns blazing. The violence is plentiful and is handled with great care. People are given personalities so every loss on the good guys' side is felt. This is aided as Richet favors lingering shots of people with holes in their heads.
Casting is inspired. As Roenick, Hawke is the biggest surprise, delivering his best performance since Andrew Nicchols' brilliant GATTACA. He is completely believable as the washed-up cop but doesn't let himself slip into too many cliches. He pops pills and is refreshingly honest with people about his condition, even while being dishonest with himself.
Marion Bishop is the heavy, in more ways the one. Here, more than anytime else, we really appreciate what a towering hulk of a man Fishburne is. The man just looms over everything and elicits immediate authority whenever he walks into a room. Fishburne has a glare that could turn most people's legs to jelly. He gives the impression that he is watching you even when he isn't looking directly at you. Fishburne is soft-spoken and carries himself in manner that clearly defines himself as the boss.
The supporting cops are surprisingly decent. Drea de Matteo, who has the dubious distinction of starring in two overrated television shows (THE SOPRANOS and JOEY), really grows on you. At first, she comes off as nothing but a party-mad skank. Eventually, through little more than the subtleties of de de Matteo's performance, she turns into a genuinely likeable and sympathetic character. It's always nice to see Brian Dennehy to something good. Let's face it, the big guy has been in some awful television projects in recent years, probably because that was what was available. Nice to see him on solid ground again. He's a loud, Irish cop who has been on the force long enough to be both suspicious and offended when his sergeant hands the criminals weapons and asks for their help.
Sadly, the same positive notes have alluded the stock criminals. It's not the writing, it's the acting. They just don't resonate in any meaningful way like the rest of the cast does. John Leguizamo has two types of performances, amazing (the Baz Luhrman films or any of his one-man shows) or annoying (SPAWN). Guess which one he is here? As a conspiracy-minded junkie who talks out of the side of his mouth, he's heavy on the jabber, light on the empathy. Jeffrey Atkins, a.k.a. rapper Ja Rule makes the same impression here that he did in HALF PAST DEAD and THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, which is to say he makes no impression at all. I will say however that both Leguizamo and Atkins unleash the most brutal and entertaining killing the film offers.
Try not to belabor the fact that this is a remake. This time, they did it right. Besides, the first ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 was itself a loose remake of RIO BRAVO, by way of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and HELL UP IN HARLEM. DeMonaco's script keeps things moving, gives us some good characters and puts us in that rare situation where we honestly believe anything could happen to anyone at any given time. John Carpenter's film was a great adrenaline rush, action movie junk food with characters you honestly cared about. The new PRECINCT 13 knows better than to usurp the throne, but it sits comfortably beside it's own royalty.