Title: Assault on Precinct 13
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
Play time: 1h 49min
Director: Jean-François Richet
Screenwriters: John Carpenter, James DeMonaco
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, Gabriel Byrne
It’s only appropriate, I guess, that John Carpenter’s simple, utterly minimalist Assault on Precinct 13 gets a convoluted, protracted update; we consistently feel the need to spruce up our high concepts with excruciating detail. This is the vague equivalent of Panic Room being remade with the invaders as international terrorists attempting to infiltrate the White House. But for what it is, it works well enough — as a thriller and suspense machine, at least, it is serviceable, and technically proficient. Its attempts at psychological depth border on the hilarious.
The street gangs attacking the abandoned police precinct in Carpenter’s original become crooked cops bent on destroying everyone inside, as some of Precinct 13’s inhabitants have information that could put them away for a long time. Specifically, the target is Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), a gangster who has just been arrested and is ready to testify against the corrupt Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne). Duvall, of course, knows that if he is to get away clean, he must leave no one alive.
Leading the good guys is Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke), a cop wracked with guilt over a long-ago operation that resulted in the death of his partner, etc., etc. The scene that depicts the failed sting is actually one of the most effective — it abruptly opens the film, and director Jean-Francois Richet shows a knack for gritty, frightening immediacy. Hawke, for his part, does a neat job of switching from drug dealer to narc, so much so that I was somewhat surprised even though I knew it was coming.
The movie is far more uneven once the plot gets going. Some characters are irritating and utterly useless — John Leguizamo’s disgruntled prisoner, in particular, made me wish for his own expedient demise, though there’s some mildly intriguing subtext when he gets a gun and lives out what must have been his lifelong dream of shooting at cops. In the midst of the action, Richet and screenwriter James DeMonaco inexplicably take time out to tend to the protagonist’s guilt-wracked psychological state, a plot thread so thin and weak that it is just distracting. Assault on Precinct 13 doesn’t always seem to know where its strengths lie.
The series of climaxes goes on way too long, culminating in a plot twist that makes very little sense given the preceding 90 minutes. I suppose that a turn of events to that effect was inevitable one way or another, but think about the feasibility of how it is done, and if there were perhaps more plausible ways to pull it off. The scene in the woods is absolutely interminable, and suffers from an overwhelming amount of dramatic pretense — there were any number of shorter routes to resolution, perhaps bypassing the character stuff that isn’t working anyway.
I know, I know — when there is no attempt at character development, we often complain about that very thing. But if you’re going to do it, do it well. This film’s attempts at adding emotional and psychological layers are so sub-par that they serve only to slow the movie down and distract from its thriller elements, which are actually quite effective. This is the kind of movie that needed to be quick, tight, efficient, and entirely plot-driven — something, perhaps, like what John Carpenter pulled off some 28 years ago.
But even when the film unwisely slams on the breaks, it rarely drags, and the engagingly gimmicky plot mostly gets you through it. As we know from decades of remakes, however, more isn’t always better.