Assault on Precinct 13 (8/10)

by Tony Medley

There are remakes that ape a much better original like “Alfie” and “Around the World in 80 Days” last year. There are a few that are similar but different, and that’s what we have here. Even though this has the same name as the John Carpenter 1976 original, these filmmakers, Director Jean-François Richet and Producers Pascal Couchette, Stephanie Sperry, and Jeffrey Silver, call this one a “re-imagining” rather than a remake. Both versions have the same general theme in common and both are based on Howard Hawks “Rio Bravo” (1959).

While Carpenter’s film was set in arid California, this film is set in snowbound Detroit on New Year’s Eve. There are other differences, but the premise is the same; a poorly manned police precinct is attacked by outside forces and the inhabitants of the precinct must link up with their prisoners to defend themselves.

Sergeant Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke) is in charge or Precinct 13 on its last day of existence. He’s a flawed policeman as he’s trying to recover from a botched undercover sting that went very wrong and he’s being psychoanalyzed by Alex Sabina (Maria Belo). The other cop at the precinct is an old timer, Jasper O’Shea (Brian Denney).

Suddenly into their jailhouse comes a busload of prisoners who, because of the snowstorm, can’t get through to the maximum security prison for which they are headed. The prisoners include Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishbone), a crime lord, and some minor criminals, junkie Beck (John Leguizamo), Smiley (Jeffrey “Ja Rule” Atkins), and gang member Anna (Asia Hinds).

Two masked men invade the precinct and the fight is on with the bad guys headed by a cold-blooded Marcus Duval (Gabriel Byrne). Richet expertly directs the action so that the constant tension continues to escalate. Carpenter’s original invented the urban western genre and this falls right in line. There are even the leaps of faith you find in most westerns. For example, at the start of the film Roenick and Jasper are looking through the evidence locker and find a circa-1930’s tommy gun. Later during the battle the gun is put to good use. But we are to believe that abundant ammunition for the tommy gun has been preserved all these years and is still in good working order. Also, like in most westerns, bullets fly all over the place, never hitting anyone. And there’s the classic western scene where the bad guys outside are pummeling the structure with thousands of rounds with the good guys hiding right next to a window. There are the requisite respites during which the bad guys outside cease firing for a few moments so the good guys can pop up at the window and spray a few shots of their own with no bullets coming at them. Ah, Hollywood!

Another thing that I generally find offensive is when a gangster is depicted sympathetically. Bishop is shown as strong and wise and someone to be relied upon, like Marlon Brando in “The Godfather” saga. Gangsters are murderers, drug dealers, hardened criminals. It's unfortunate when Hollywood chooses to show them in a positive light instead of the sociopaths they are.

These are minor glitches, however, as the film is well done and kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. There is character development, as well. While the original was a basic action flick with the characters secondary, screenwriter James DeMonaco develops Roenick and Bishop and Alex and Jasper and the others so that there are personal stories as well as action. All in all a fast-paced, tense, entertaining 109 minutes.

January 22, 2005

The End