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Assault on Precinct 13   B

Rogue Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Jean-François Richet
Writer: James DeMonaco (based on the film written by John Carpenter)
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, John Leguizamo, Maria Bello, Ja Rule, Drea de Matteo, Brian Dennehy, Gabriel Byrne.

Review by Rob Vaux

This is a pleasant surprise. Who would have thought that a January remake of a B-movie classic would be anything worth writing home about? But the new version of Assault on Precinct 13 not only captures the taut excitement of the original John Carpenter film, it makes good (for once) on the "reimagining" so carelessly promised by movies of this type. Its Fort Apache scenario of an undermanned police station besieged by an army of faceless invaders remains sharp and compelling, and in the hands of French director Jean-François Richet leaps full-bore into the 21st century.

Richet has a good sense of action, framing the mayhem with subtle yet original cues that speak to a well-honed imagination. The cliché of laser sights shining eerily through the window -- at least a decade old and showing its age -- feels new again with the simple addition of two unsuspecting targets stumbling blindly through their beams. And the initial barrage which begins the assault -- a deafening firehose of bullets shattering the lonely police building -- catches us off-guard by a soft, almost gentle framing (we see it in long shot, and only gradually do the muzzle flashes permeate our consciousness). With tricks like these, Richet brings a muscular kick to his material, elevating it from forgettable genre fare to solid entertainment.

The changes to the scenario itself reflect our contemporary anxieties the same way the original did for its age. Carpenter's version posited a horde of gang members rising from the streets, a vision of near-apocalypse threatening to devour civilization. The western trappings felt right at home in post-Vietnam America, where problems seemed insurmountable and the barbarians were massing at the gates. Richet turns that concept on its head, positing the attackers not as inner-city thugs, but corrupt cops intent on murdering the drug lord (Laurence Fishburne) who can finger their boss (Gabriel Byrne). The concept is hardly new, but Richet cloaks their behavior in moral vagaries that neatly fit these muddy and contentious times. Byrne's Marcus Duvall uses politician's lies to excuse his sins, justifying away the fact that he'll have to kill his fellow policemen -- and not a few innocent civilians -- in order to silence Fishburne's Marion Bishop (who's being held at the station to wait out a winter storm).

The result is the same as it was three decades ago. Precinct 13 -- scheduled for shutdown and holding just two cops, a few civilians, and a handful of prisoners -- must fend off dozens of Duvall's underlings armed for World War III. Richet changes the atmosphere but not the mood, transforming Carpenter's steaming midsummer L.A. to a snowfallen New Year's Detroit. And as before, survival depends on the precinct's head man Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke) making an alliance with Bishop and his fellow inmates. The screenplay by James DeMonaco lends them a little more weight than most action films -- Roenick has substance abuse problems and while Bishop is thinly sketched, Fishburne augments it with a deep helping of his trademark cool. The remaining denizens have their own quirks as well (Brian Dennehy's over-the-hill veteran is a standout), and Richet has great fun putting them through the paces. The action swirls around steady retreads of Carpenter's shticks -- Can the cops reach any nearby cars? Is there a way to signal for help? Where will the attackers hit next? -- and keeps the backbeat strong thanks to the director's nifty little flourishes.

Of course, it's still not quite as good as the original. Carpenter made his version for the change under his couch, and its underground roots gave it both a distinctive identity and some genre-busting features (a black cop as the hero, for example). The new Assault has a much slicker look and a high-profile cast that make it feel more conventional. But that doesn't prevent it from delivering a terrific little roller coaster in its own right, or from finding a unique voice to build on that which came before it. Assault on Precinct 13 is a modest film to be sure, but that modesty still packs a satisfying punch. Don't expect its director to stay limited to remakes.

Review published 01.18.2005.

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