Assault on Precinct 13
John Carpenter’s 1976 low-budget exploitation picture Assault on Precinct 13 has a well-deserved cult following. It’s not exactly a classic—the limitations of the budget and some of the actors are only too clear—but it’s lean and economical, with a pulpy B-movie energy, and Carpenter had a flair for simple, clean images. If you’ve seen it, you probably think you know what to expect from the new version with Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne. You don’t.
In the remake, written by James DeMonaco and directed by Jean-François Richet, the setting is still a police station scheduled for closing and staffed by a skeleton crew. But the action is moved from a fictitious Los Angeles ghetto to Detroit during a New Year’s Eve blizzard. And, instead of a shadowy youth gang in pseudo-revolutionary Che Guevara garb, the gang besieging the station is a mob of rogue cops who are after the station’s most important prisoner, a cop-killing gangster named Bishop (Fishburne). It seems the cop whom Bishop killed, like the ones assaulting the station, was corrupt, and Bishop’s testimony can “bring them all down.”
The cop in charge of the station is Sgt. Jake Roenick (Hawke). In a prologue to the main story, we see Roenick eight months earlier, on an undercover narcotics sting that goes bad, getting both his partners killed. Now, we are told, he’s back in uniform, his confidence as a leader sapped by the guilt he feels over that earlier bust. He’s opted out of high-pressure police work, preferring an uncomplicated desk job and his occasional therapy sessions with a psychiatrist (Maria Bello), whom he half-seriously accuses of having the hots for him.
The rest of the crew at Precinct 13, marking time until the station house is closed for good, consists of O’Shea (Brian Dennehy), an old-timer on the verge of retirement; Iris, the office secretary (Drea de Matteo), who nurses an unconcealed penchant for sex with “bad boys”; and Capra (Matt Craven), who harbors an unconcealed desire for sex with Iris.
It looks like the crew is going to have a quiet night, with the blizzard putting a lid on the city. But then the rough weather forces a prison bus transporting the gangster Bishop and a few others—strung-out junkie Beck (John Leguizamo), small-time thief Smiley (Jeffrey “Ja Rule” Atkins) and two or three more who make little impression—to seek refuge at Precinct 13 until the snow lets up. Then the rogue contingent—which seems to consist of the entire Detroit Police Department, except for the three inside the station—moves in for the kill, led by dirty-cop-in-chief Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne).
Fans of Carpenter’s original will see that this is another one of those remakes in name only, like (to name two wildly divergent examples) Walking Tall and Around the World in 80 Days, both from last year. The impulse behind making the movie is hard to understand. Carpenter’s original, despite its loyal following, was not a big hit in 1976, nor is it remembered well or widely now.
There are scattered elements in DeMonaco’s script that remotely echo some of Carpenter’s touches: sexual tension between a secretary and a prisoner, a gunman rising up in the back seat of a car to blow the driver’s brains out, an escape attempt through a sewer tunnel, etc. But everything is ramped up and heightened, the way a sound editor might crank up the audio gain to make a punch sound like a freight train hitting an elephant. And in underscoring and italicizing everything, DeMonaco and director Richet get sloppy. Where Carpenter was clean and simple, they’re chaotic and dislocated, especially in dividing out attention between the besieged station house and the gang outside (Carpenter kept the gang a shadowy menace and didn’t go deeply into its motivation).
Assault on Precinct 13 isn’t terrible, just garden-variety mediocre, and although there are a handful of surprises, mostly it’s all too predictable. Hawke and Fishburne comport themselves with square-jawed magnetism, but it only makes us hope they make another movie together sometime—when we should be relishing this one.