Assault On Precinct 13 Review
John Carpenter's Assault On Precinct 13 was a cool, pared-down seventies thriller that played like an urban hybrid of Rio Bravo and Night Of The Living Dead. It told the story of an isolated police station that was besieged for one long night. Wisely, the producers of the 2005 remake have taken only this most basic premise and otherwise created a new storyline from scratch. This has proven to be the most successful approach to remaking films, as last year's Dawn Of The Dead and Carpenter's own 1982 version of The Thing demonstrate. Rather than try to imitate John Carpenter's suspense-oriented filmmaking style, director Jean-François Richet has opted to turn the remake into the kind of fast-moving, violent thrill ride that Joel Silver used to produce fifteen years ago. Die Hard is as much the model as the original Assault. As a tip of the hat, Richet throws in a direct visual quote from Die Hard 2: the means of dispatching the first villain.
Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke) used to be one of the best undercover cops in Detroit until a drug bust went sour and two officers under his command were killed. Traumatised by the experience, he's now working as a desk sergeant, posted temporarily to Precinct 13, a rundown police station that's about to close its doors for good. It's New Year's Eve and only a skeleton crew remains at the precinct. Besides Roenick, there's retiring Irish flatfoot Jasper (Brian Dennehy), slutty secretary Iris (Drea de Matteo) and police psychiatrist Alex (Maria Bello), who's getting nowhere with her patient - Sgt Roenick.
It should be a quiet night. Instead, a ferocious blizzard forces a bus transporting four prisoners to the county jail to take a detour to Precinct 13. Among those on board is Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), a notorious gangster and cop-killer. No sooner are the passengers brought inside and locked up than gunfire erupts from the cellblock as masked intruders try to reach the occupants. Even though they're repelled, reinforcements have arrived and the station has been surrounded. They've cut the phone lines, blocked all mobiles and taken up sniper positions.
A brick is thrown through a window with a message demanding Bishop be handed over. The obvious assumption is that the gangster's cronies have come to free him but when a dead body turns out to have a police badge on it, Roenick learns that the killers outside are cops working for Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne), a high-ranking Detroit policeman and Bishop's secret partner in crime. Duvall knows that if Bishop goes to court, he and his team will be exposed and he can't allow that to happen. Bishop must die and the everyone else inside Precinct 13, even brother officers, are expendable.
Assault On Precinct 13's strongest asset is its sharp characterisation. The people trapped in the police station are broadly but effectively sketched. From Ethan Hawke's Sgt Roenick down to the petty criminals played by John Leguizamo, Aisha Hinds and Ja Rule, we know who everyone is and we understand their actions. Roenick's fear of making life or death decisions is especially well integrated into the story. This is one of those rare action movies that understands that to find a film exciting, you need to care about the people in it. Screenwriter James DeMonaco, who also wrote The Negotiator, deserves some of the credit, as does whoever put together such an impressive cast of character actors. The performances are universally good, Laurence Fishburne and Maria Bello's in particular.
It's too bad that a similar amount of effort wasn't put into developing the villains, who are a major weak point for more than one reason. That dependable Irish actor Gabriel Byrne does the best he can but we don't learn enough about Marcus Duvall. Compared to the memorable corrupt cops played by Denzel Washington in Training Day and Michael Chiklis on TV's The Shield, he's rather pale, while his footsoldiers are no more than faceless henchmen. Literally faceless since most of the time they're wearing ski masks and night vision headsets. This defuses the action scenes somewhat as there's no sense of people being killed, just masked villains popping up to be blasted like bots in a video game.
There's also a serious credibility problem in the number of men Duvall has at his disposal. We're told he's called in help from a network of corrupt policemen but it seems absurd that at such short notice, he could have amassed a small army, all apparently prepared to murder fellow cops and civilians on his behalf. He even rustles up a helicopter in the middle of a raging snowstorm. Duvall's plan is poorly worked out. He means to pin the killings on Bishop's gang but won't someone be suspicious at the deaths of so many city cops on the same night? A better approach might have been to limit the bad guys to Duvall's own team and let us get to know them as well as the heroes. It worked for Die Hard.
Jean-François Richet proves himself to be a very efficient director of action and he maintains a tense atmosphere almost all the way through, dropping the ball only in the final shootout. It's never a good idea to slow the pace down right when the film should be climaxing. And where did that forest come from? Gripes aside, this is a solid, satisfying action picture that provides the thrills it promises along with a few surprises and doesn't disgrace its illustrious title. Just make sure you leave as soon as the screen fades to black so you don't have to sit through the embarassing title song.