Assault on Precinct 13
Director : Jean-François Richet
Screenplay : James DeMonaco (based on the film written by John Carpenter)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Ethan Hawke (Jake Roenick), Laurence Fishburne (Marion Bishop), Brian Dennehy (Jasper O'Shea), Drea de Matteo (Iris Ferry), Gabriel Byrne (Marcus Duvall), Maria Bello (Alex Sabian), John Leguizamo (Beck Jeffrey), “Ja Rule” Atkins (Smiley), Aisha Hinds (Anna), Matt Craven (Capra)
In this remake of John Carpenter’s 1976 cult classic Assault on Precinct 13, itself a modern urban riff on Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959), the filmmakers keep the basic nightmare scenario, but add new elements of backstory, characterization, and, most of all, stylization. They also switch up the source of threat, giving the film a profoundly, if sometime overstated anti-authoritarian spin, although in the process losing some of the original’s primal urgency and raw-to-the-bone tension. Screenwriter James DeMonaco fleshes out the storyline and adds some new twists, while French director Jean-François Richet evinces plenty of visual flair and an almost obscene fascination with bleeding head wounds.
The setting has been moved from a gang-overrun Los Angeles ghetto to the edges of Detroit on New Year’s Eve, which allows for cinematographer Robert Gantz (Mindhunters) to revel in shady blues, inky blacks, and dirty-snow grays. In Carpenter’s original, a rookie police lieutenant is trapped inside a decaying, soon-to-be-closed police precinct while an army of vicious gangbangers besiege it. It was a perfect example of ’70s-era violence: confused, frantic, inexplicable. It was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, a portrait of bad luck gone hopelessly bloody.
The remake is much more refined in its narrative, as its establishes solid explanations for why everything happens and also drops some of the original’s more strained narrative conceits, particularly the avenging father of a murdered little girl whose sanctuary in the precinct sets off the siege. Instead of gang members, the army laying siege to Precinct 13 (which is more outdated and rundown than ever) is now composed of dirty cops led by the corrupt Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne). They want inside because the precinct is temporarily housing Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), a big-time crime lord who can finger ever single one of them if he makes it to court alive (interestingly, Bishop was the name of the hero in the original). Thus, the clear divisions of good cops/bad gang members that fueled the original has been muddied, suggesting instead an intertwining of authority and subversion.
Unfortunately, Precinct 13 is not equipped to do battle, as it is supposed to close down for good at midnight and is manned by little more than a skeleton crew. The head of the precinct is Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke), who is nursing eight months of guilt and pain-killer addiction after an undercover drug deal went bad, resulting in the death of his two partners (we see this take place in the jittery, jump-cut pre-credits prologue, which promises a more eviscerating film than is ultimately delivered). So, as we all know from Hollywood 101 Screenwriting class, Jake is the emotionally hobbled hero who will learn to stand up tall again and take responsibility during the course of the siege. Hawke’s increasingly gaunt look serves him well here, as he is more believable as a strung-out has-been with deep emotional issues than he is once he starts packing a machine gun like Rambo.
Others in the precinct include an old, about-to-retire Irish cop (Brian Dennehy), an oversexed secretary (Drea de Matteo), and an attractive police psychologist (Maria Bello) with whom Jake has an antagonistic, possible romantic rapport. And then there are the other convicts who were being transported along with Bishop when their bus was sidelined by inclement weather: an overly verbose junkie thief (John Leguizamo), a counterfeiter (Ja Rule), and a female street thug (Aisha Hinds). Given the shortage of manpower inside the precinct and the ever-accumulating outside army of corrupt cops equipped with laser-sited rifles, body armor, and night vision, it is only a matter of time before Jake has to let the prisoners out and arm them, thus instigating a delicate balancing act of cop/criminal partnership.
In its middle section, Assault on Precinct 13 manages to build up an impressive head of steam, as Richet rachets up the tension while the siege becomes more and more hopeless and the tentative partnership between jittery Jake and smooth-cool Bishop goes through its ups and downs. The ingenuity of those inside the precinct and their fierce will to survive give the film a gutsy punch, but it’s often undermined by the film’s narrative excess. One of the reasons Carpenter’s low-budget original was so effective was that it dispensed with the narrative frills and stuck to the primal terror of being trapped. It didn’t matter who or why, just that you were caught in a web and all exits led to a violent death. Richet captures this essence nicely, but the screenplay ultimately packs on too much exposition, particularly about Jake, so that the more basic urgency of survival loses to the more clichéd urgency of character redemption.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2005 Rogue Pictures