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Assault on Precinct 13 Review

By Shawn McKenzie 01/19/2005

Another year, another remake.  I still get the same moans and groans whenever I hear that from fellow moviegoers.  I’ve never been in that same camp though.  I figure that if a remake is well made, it can be just as good, if not better, than the original.  In 2004 alone, I enjoyed a few decent remakes.  I liked both Dawn of the Dead and The Stepford Wives better than the originals (though I am in the minority on the latter), and I liked The Manchurian Candidate (though it wasn’t as good as the original, only because it didn’t have the same shock value for me.)  I can add Assault on Precinct 13 to that list, but it may only be that I have never seen the original.  I want to though, because one of my fellow critics told me that the original was one of his top 25 favorite films of all time.

Sergeant Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke) is a desk cop waiting out his stay on New Year’s Eve at Precinct 13 in Detroit.  He doesn’t want to do anything but that, because, eight months earlier, he was involved in a undercover operation with a drug dealer named Milos (Titus Welliver) that went bad, resulting in two of his partners getting killed.  Jake struggles with the memories of the bad bust, drowning himself in booze and pills.  He has a couple of women that he flirts with though:  police psychologist Alex Sabian (Maria Bello) and precinct secretary Iris Ferry (Drea de Matteo.)  Alex is here on this last day of the year to try to counsel Jake one last time about the bust, but he avoids the subject by flirting with her.  As for Iris…she wants to just have a good time, getting ready for the celebration of the New Year and the end of the precinct, which is being shut down at midnight (all of the employees will then transfer to the newer, sleeker Precinct 21, since the old Precinct 13, built in the ‘40s, has seen better days.)  All veteran cop Jasper “Old School” O’Shea (Brian Dennehy) wants to do is kick back and enjoy his last night at the precinct, because he will be retiring the next day, so he is just babysitting the precinct and partying with Iris.  Meanwhile, earlier in the day, crime lord Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne) has a run-in with an undercover cop named Ray Portnow (Fulvio Cecere) in a church and kills Ray.  The Organized Crime and Racketeering squad, headed by Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne) and his right-hand man Michael Kahane (Currie Graham), captures Bishop.  He is then put on a bus headed for Precinct 21 with other prisoners, including Beck (John Leguizamo), a junkie who thinks that everyone is out to get him; Smiley (Jeffrey “Ja Rule” Atkins), a con man and street hustler; and Anna (Aisha Hinds), a gang banger who swears that she is innocent of the charges brought against her.  Bishop can’t make bail because of the holidays, so he has to ride along with the other prisoners headed for Precinct 21.  Along the way though, the bus, being driven by officers Rosen (Kim Coates) and Gil (Dorian Harewood), are told that they need to divert the prisoners to Precinct 13 because of the snowstorm.  They are followed by a mysterious SUV to the precinct.  As beat cops Carlyle (Arnold Pinnock) and Capra (Matt Craven) head out to do some partying, they assist the prisoners to their cells in the basement for the night.  Not long after midnight, some masked men break in to the basement and kill one of the bus transfer cops while wounding the other.  Jake fights the men back, and everyone assumes that they were just here to spring Bishop out of jail.  When Jake successfully kills one of the intruders, he finds out that the intruder was a police officer named Danny Barbero (Tig Fong), so he gets confused.  It’s not until Bishop explains to Jake that Duvall is a corrupt cop who wants to kill Bishop so that he won’t testify in court about the bad things that Duvall and his people have been up to.  The diversion was the perfect setup to take Bishop out, but it looks like they have to kill everyone who might get in their way, which unfortunately includes Alex, who came from a party and got stuck in the snow, and Capra, who also came back from his party.  With no outside communication through cell phones or the police radio, the people inside the precinct are forced to fight the corrupt cops until the morning.  They are outmanned and outgunned, so Jake makes a command decision to free the prisoners temporarily so that they can survive the night.  With only nine people (ten, if you count the injured cop) fighting a squad of bad guys, it is anyone’s guess who will live to tell the tale.

The original movie was written and directed in 1976 by John Carpenter.  Two years later, Carpenter made the now classic Halloween, which effectively put him on the map, but the original Assault got him noticed.  The original movie itself is a loose remake of Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo, starring John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, and Angie Dickinson.  I’ve heard that the Carpenter movie almost got an “X” rating because of a scene involving one of the bad guys killing a little girl.  In these politically correct days, that might seem shocking back then, but there are a few surprising scenes in this version, though I’m guessing not as outrageous as the original.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but the fates of the characters don’t go as predictably as I would have thought that they would (except for one character, but again, I don’t want to give anything away.  If you are a fan of any of the billion TV movies that this actor has starred in, you might know who I am talking about.)

Hawke reminds me of Richard Gere; he is an actor that I don’t like, so the movies of his that like are good despite him being in them.  This movie, along with his Oscar-nominated performance in Training Day, may make me start to like him.  It did take an effective collaboration with a better actor in both movies though.  In Training Day, that better actor was Denzel Washington, and in this movie, it was Fishburne.  It’s odd that Fishburne has only been nominated for one Oscar (for 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do with It), though I’m not saying that this one will get any Oscars.  It’s just that he has a presence that commands attention every time he is on the screen.

As for the others, they all play by the numbers, but fortunately, it isn’t too stale.  Dennehy plays his millionth Irish cop, but he can still do it.  de Matteo is essentially doing her characters from HBO’s “The Sopranos” and NBC’s “Joey,” but again, it is entertaining.  Leguizamo and Ja Rule are both the obligatory comic relief, but Leguizamo is a chameleon in his performances, because he can go from drama to comedy at the drop of a hat.  Bello doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but at least she finally doesn’t play the sexpot of her earlier films (with the exception that her character changes from her conservative clothes to a slinky dress for her New Years party that she can’t make it to because of her car problems in the snow.)

Assault on Precinct 13 is the first American film for French director Jean-François Richet, and I think that he has made a remake that would have made Carpenter proud.  I may have a different opinion once I finally do see the original, but I do think that this one might satisfy some fans of the original, and it might inspire new fans, like me, to seek out the original for themselves.  My fellow critic friend doesn’t like to give his opinion of a movie right after seeing it, but he did admit that it wasn’t as good as the original.  Whether or not he liked it anyway will have to remain to be seen, but as for me, I really enjoyed it and I can’t wait to see the original either in the video store or on cable.


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