A film review by Craig J. Koban


2005, R, 109 mins.

Jake Roenick: Ethan Hawke / Marion Bishop: Laurence Fishburne / Beck: John Leguizama / Alex Sabian: Maria Bello / Smiley: Jeffrey  Atkins / Iris Ferry: Drea de Matteo / Capra: Matt Craven / Jasper O'Shea: Brian Dennehy / Marcus Duvall: Gabriel Byrne / Anna Aisha Hinds

Directed by Jean-Francois Richet / Screenplay by James DeMonaco, based on the film written by John Carpenter

Sometimes when I look at trade publications or stroll through the movie pages of the Internet I am often astonished by how desperate Hollywood seems to be these days for bankable projects.  Just how bereft of originally ideas are the studios?  Well, remakes of classic pictures and TV shows seem to be about a dime a dozen these days.  Don’t get me wrong, I am open-minded and realize that, as remakes go, the batch of them over the years has been a decidedly mixed bag. 

Some are downright awful (like TV remakes such as THE BEVERLEY HILLBILLIES), some are cleverly amusing (like STARSKY and HUTCH), some are ambitious, if not a bit disappointing (like Tim Burton’s “re-imagining” of PLANET OF THE APES) and some, like 2004’s THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, are exemplary entertainments that actually stand up well on there own as fine individual pieces separate from their originals.  I just read that Mel Brooks is planning to turn his hit Broadway musical – THE PRODUCERS – into a new comedy/ musical film.  Wait a minute…isn’t the stage PRODUCERS based on Brooks’ classic 1960’s comedy THE PRODUCERS, which would mean that this represents the first time a director is remaking an adaptation of his own film, right? 

I’ve just gone crossed-eyed. 

The new version of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 conjured up similar convoluted thoughts when I was waiting for the lights to go down and for it to begin.  After all, this new film is based on the classic cult hit of the same name from 1976.  That film was directed by a then young and  fledging John Carpenter and was a taut exercise in filmmaking economy.  I thoroughly enjoyed 76’s PRECINCT and thought it was tense, well written, and a production quite indicative of the best action exploitation pictures of its day.  Yet, that film was also a loose remake, in a way, of Howard Hawke’s RIO BRAVO which would have its basic premise revisited in later horror films like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.  The premise – people finding themselves in a lone fort and must protect themselves from dangerous intruders.  Obviously, Carpenter was probably trying to amalgamate the mood and themes of both RIO BRAVO (with its western elements and gunslingers) with LIVING DEAD (evil marauders attacking you as you brace yourself in you dwelling).   

The new ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 also explores that basic premise, but it also re-imagines it (to take a creative page out of Burton’s notebook) for contemporary settings.  The basic plot of the new version is ostensibly the same, but this new version provides us with more intrinsically interesting villains that actually provide a bit more tension and animosity than the preceding version did.  However, much like the original, this new PRECINCT features strong individual characters, fine acting, along with supplying a few twists and turns that many may not feel coming.  It's also a tight, lean n’ mean action thriller that is done with the right level of restraint and vigor.  For what its worth, it ranks right up there with last years MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE as one of the better remakes, and is one of the more suspenseful and involving action-thrillers since COLLATERAL.  It’s really quite a fun, exhilarating, suspenseful, and entertaining ride. 

The new version relocates the original’s story to a blizzard-afflicted Detroit on New Year’s Eve, which more or less creates some eerie ambiance to the proceedings (and, thankfully, this film’s snow and stormy conditions feel more real and less the stuff of Hollywood magic).  One Detroit police precinct, lucky number 13, is scheduled to be closed, forever it seems, at the stroke of midnight.  The man that runs the rundown precinct is a young, burnt-out, pill popping desk sergeant named Jake Fornick (played in a very good performance by Ethan Hawke). 

Jake, as the film’s exposition shows us, was a fairly able-bodied undercover narc until a mission that went disastrously wrong left a partner dead and him seriously wounded, both mentally and physically.  When we arrive months later at the precinct he is still traumatized by the botched mission and is reduced to working lonely graveyard shifts.  Well, his wound has more than healed and he is more than capable of returning to his past line of police work, but he still begrudgingly stays on as a desk cop.  Anyway, Jake is about to bring in the New Year with the precinct's only other apparent workers, an old timer who announces his impeding retirement – O’Shea (the always dependable Brian Dennehy) and his highly flirtatious and sexually hungry secretary Iris (Drea de Matteo, in a cute and funny performance). 

There is not a hell of a lot for the trio to do at the precinct, seeing as they are no criminals there and that everything in the building has been nearly moved to another newer one.  All there is left to essentially do is welcome in the New Year with a bit of bubbly and, in Jake’s case,  a few pills and a bottle of Wild Turkey.  Oh, Jake’s police appointed shrink is also there for a routine check up (Maria Bello) and has a few moments of idle flirtation with him.  She is dressed in a sexy number, to which Jake precludes actually exists  to pine for his affection.  Actually, she is about to go out for New Year’s after her check up.  She subsequently leaves and, when weather becomes too unbearable, she quickly comes back to the precinct after her car breaks down.  Her return would prove to be the beginning of dark foreshadowing for the rest of the evening. 

Things start to take nasty changes for the absolute worst.   A highly dangerous mobster (when are they not dangerous?) named Bishop (in a performance of icy cool and detached charisma that echoes Morpheus by Laurence Fishburne) has just been arrested and is being transported by a police bus with some other crazy detainees.  Some of the other societal rejects include a blabbermouth from hell named Beck (John Lequizama, who channels a great amount of nervous and agitating energy), a bald female crook (Aisha Hinds) and a man who specializes in counterfeiting named Smiley (Jeffrey Aitkins, in an ironic performance, considering that he does not smile too much with all of his brooding).  Well, unfortunately for the officers of precinct 13, an accident has blocked the bus from making its route and they are forced to drop of the detainees at the lackluster station.  Funny, no one, other than Jake, seems to think that the undermanned and under-equipped station would be a good place to house wackos, but I guess that’s beside the point. 

Things go from worse to extremely dreadful when it appears that a squad of masked men with high artillery and equipment arrive on scene in an apparent effort to break Bishop out of the precinct, or are they to free him, really?  Nevertheless, complete pandemonium breaks loose at it's all up to Jake, the only one with a sensibly level head (if you exclude the drugs and alcohol) to pull everyone together.  The precinct is now reduced to a stronghold for both cop and criminal and Jake commands the station and pulls together everyone in a last ditch effort to defend themselves from a ghastly death.  This is made all the more problematic when it is discovered that the phone line has been cut and before you can yell out “cell” or “radio”, those too have been all-too conveniently put out of commission.   

Their situation is further compounded by the fact that the computers  have been taken away for relocation.  Yup, all of them are stuck there for the night, all in a desperate attempt to starve off the forces of the men, whose identities I will not reveal other than to say that they are all lead by Gabriel Byrne in a performance of surprisingly mannered and calm focus, especially for an antagonist (imagine a screaming Gary Oldman and you’ll see my point).  His character could have been played on the one note dimension of insanity by other actors, but Byrne wisely underplays his part effectively, which kind of gives him a more deadly and sinister edge. 

This remake, under the hands of French filmmaker Jean-Francois Richet, is quite gripping and well-paced, and I was more than a little surprised to find how much interest both he and the actors are able to get out of material that has been done to death in many other similar films in the past.  PRECINCT is an action thriller and not a character piece, but it still does work very effectively by providing some really great performances out of its actors, all who are equal to the task.  Ethan Hawke (who has always been a poor-man’s Tom Cruise) churns out yet another stellar and emotive performance that is able to quickly rise above the cliché that the character is and transcends it into someone we can route for, despite his own transgressions.  I also like Fishburne as the soft-spoken and low-key criminal that gets more done with a few actions than with a loud scream.  Dennehy is also good as the crafty veteran that does not altogether trust all of the criminals that are helping in the defense of the precinct, and Mario Bello further provides some insight into the already well-rounded cast.  For a film that, at least on paper, feels less that involving, it’s kind of amazing how much sympathy we get just from the performances alone.  PRECINCT is one of those rare action thrillers that work exceptionally well when the actors rise above an adequate screenplay. 

Not all of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 works successfully.  There are a few plot points and one big reveal in the film’s final act that did not make much sense, nor does a final action scene, which apparently cuts from the precinct to a lush forest in a matter of seconds (I am no expert in the terrain of Detroit, but I am positive that no forests exist in downtown Detroit).  Yet, these are trivial contrivances and criticisms that in no way truly undermine what a hard-hitting, well-directed and acted thriller the film really is.  Moreover, I liked the fact the film is layered with a dependable and experienced group of character actors that makes the whole effort that much more appealing.  Slick, polished, never over-directed with too much flash and spectacle, and edgy and stirring, ASSAULT OF PRECINCT 13 was a bit of a wonderful surprise.  At a time of the year when the studios dump their less confident films onto the marketplace in a hope that they’ll be forgotten, PRECINCT is one of those rare credible auctioneers that’s as tough as it is smart and unrelenting.  As a remake, it's great and as an action film it’s one of the better efforts I have seen in quite some time, and one that is formulaic to its core, but nevertheless kind of fresh and invigorating with how it finds a new way to tell an old story.

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