Cop shoot cop

Battle lines are foggy in gritty action/thriller remake

TRADING HATS The good guys and bad guys team up, with the crime boss (Laurence Fishburne, background) and the cop (Ethan Hawke) being forced to fight off the assault on that bad-luck precinct.

TRADING HATS The good guys and bad guys team up, with the crime boss (Laurence Fishburne, background) and the cop (Ethan Hawke) being forced to fight off the assault on that bad-luck precinct.

Assault on Precinct 13
Starring Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, Drea de Matteo, Maria Bello, Brian Dennehy and Gabriel Byrne. Directed by Jean-François Richet. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Before making his mark by changing the face of horror with 1978’s Halloween, John Carpenter flicked out his calling card with the 1976 urban actioner, Assault on Precinct 13. A mànage of Night of the Living Dead and Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo, it was mostly notable for its iconic synth soundtrack and the unexpected whacking of a pig-tailed moppet in the first reel, just to show that no rules were to be held.

In retaliation for his daughter’s killing, her father kills the gangbanger responsible, then takes refuge in a police station on the eve of its closing (amusingly enough, the dialogue states that it is in fact Precinct 9, Division 13—just not catchy enough for a title, I assume). The rest of the multi-ethnic gangsters then begin a night-long siege on the station in payback. As mid-'70s thrillers went, Assault on Precinct 13 was heady stuff, with copious amounts of gunfire and bloodshed.

Was a remake warranted?

Sure, why the hell not? As much as I enjoyed the original, it admittedly had its problems. There is a reason why even someone familiar with the movie is unlikely to recall the name of one member of the cast. By today’s standards, the pacing is sludgy, the dialogue stilted, and the characters one dimensional.

The remake tweaks all that to the nth degree. If anything, some of the characters are overly fleshed out. On a snowy New Year’s Eve, the skeleton crew at Precinct 13 prepares to lock down the anachronistic station house and transfer over to their new digs. Burnt-out Sergeant Jake (Ethan Hawke) oversees spunky secretary (Drea de Matteo) and cop-on-the-verge-of-retirement (an always welcome Brian Dennehy) as they carry out the unwelcome task and a police psychologist flitters about nagging him. Things take a turn for the worse when a prison bus is rerouted there, taking refuge from the storm. On board is an infamous crime boss (taciturn Laurence Fishburne), and unfortunately for the benighted crew, someone wants him dead and doesn’t care who gets in the way of achieving this goal. Soon, bullets are flying, people are dying, and the besieged cops and prisoners are forced to band together in an uneasy alliance.

Refreshingly, at a time when action/thrillers are watered down to draw in the PG-13 crowd, this is an R-rated entry that dons its classification like a well-worn, blood-spattered duster left discarded since The Wild Bunch. While no little girl takes a slug through her ice cream cone this time around, here it is advised that one shouldn’t get too attached to any given character.

Making his English-language debut, director Jean-François Richet brings a Gallic sensibility to the proceedings, a jarring màlange of unearthly beauty and gritty realism, as in one scene where a grotesque execution is played out in a quasi snow-globe milieu.

He also brings to the table an outsider’s perspective on contemporary American headspace. Whereas in the original the threat was an ill-equipped authority facing down the faceless onslaught of gang members, 30 years later the police themselves are just another band of street thugs, albeit better equipped to accomplish their objectives, assuming auto-cannibalism in their self preservation … and the cavalry rides in on fire trucks.