Assault on Precinct 13 is a remake of John Carpenter’s 1976 cult hit, which still pops up on cable every now and then. Ethan Hawke stars as Jake Roenick, a Detroit police captain who quit heavy-duty undercover work after a botched sting operation left two of his colleagues dead. Roenick now works at Precinct 13, which is run-down and about to be closed. On its final night of operation (New Year’s Eve, no less), Roenick sends most of the cops home. He settles in for a quiet, uneventful night with veteran cop Jasper O’Shea (Brian Dennehy) and man-crazy secretary Iris (Drea de Matteo).
Meanwhile, a busload of prisoners makes its way through a snowstorm. One of those on board is Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), a notoriously vicious cop killer. When travel conditions become too dangerous, the bus is detoured to Precinct 13, where Roenick reluctantly houses the prisoners for the night. Then the unexpected happens. A group of heavily armed men – led by Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne) - surrounds the precinct and launches an attack. Roenick initially thinks the men are Bishop’s minions coming to free him, but it soon becomes evident that Duvall and his men have actually come to kill Bishop. (I won’t say why in order to preserve the plot point.)
Since the life of each person in the building is in danger – and since there’s hardly any staff on duty – Roenick has no choice but to recruit Bishop and the other prisoners in defending the precinct. They include smooth criminal Smiley (Ja Rule) and the intelligent-but-possibly-crazy Beck (John Leguizamo). Also pitching is Dr. Alex Sabian (Maria Bello), the psychiatrist who has been treating Roenick (and with whom he has been flirting).
Assault on Precinct 13 is nothing more than a genre picture. It is designed to give a jolt of action and violence to an audience interested in such things. Those who demand absolute logic need not bother. You won’t find any here. The plot has to find ways to keep itself in motion, and it does so by avoiding obvious questions. Why, for example, does no one in the nearby area notice the sound of a prison bus exploding? When two characters try to escape by hotwiring a car, why does one of Duvall’s men wait until they drive away to strike instead of jumping out of the back seat as soon as they get in the vehicle?
Although not everything makes sense, I liked the fact that the screenplay doesn’t always resolve things the way I expected it to. Without getting specific, I will say that there is one subplot that seemed to be heading in a predictable, tired direction. From the moment this subplot was introduced, I figured that I more or less knew the outcome. It came as a surprise, then, when things didn’t turn out quite so obviously. This willingness to occasionally subvert expectations drew me into the film more than it would have otherwise.
I also enjoyed the fact that the central situation creates an ongoing undercurrent of tension. Bishop knows that Roenick is going to try to put him back in jail when the assault is over; Roenick knows that Bishop will kill him before he lets that happen. Fishburne gets to utter a great line that his baritone growl really sells: Bishop looks at Roenick and says, “Our shit’s on hold.” There’s a moment at the end when we know their shit is back on, and there is real tension in waiting to see what happens.
Genre pictures generally don’t have casts as good as this one. I’m not sure what drew these actors to the project, but their talents elevate the movie. Director Jean-Francois Richet capably stages intense action sequences, while the cast adds a much-needed human element. The same phenomenon also helped make last year’s Dawn of the Dead remake soar. A good cast can’t save a bad movie, but it can improve genre material.
Assault on Precinct 13 is very violent, and it’s hard to say how fans of Carpenter’s original will view the remake. As a flat-out action/adventure movie, though, it does deliver the genre goods.
( out of four)
Assault on Precinct 13 is rated R for strong violence and language throughout, and for some drug content. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.
Return to The Aisle Seat