A remake of the 1976 John Carpenter film with the same name, Assault on Precinct 13 does a nice job of updating the modern day Alamo siege movie. The film begins with a brilliant Ethan Hawke moment in which he’s engaging in a wildly coked out rant. At first I wasn’t even sure the movie had started. Maybe this was just some sort of pre-movie anti-drug advertisement? But it isn’t, and Hawke twitches around the room in a great little opening scene as an undercover cop whose bust goes bad, getting his partners killed.
Flash forward eight months and that cop is a deskbound police sergeant in charge of the last shift manning Detroit Police Precinct 13 on New Year’s Eve. Scheduled for shut-down the next day, Precinct 13 is an outdated police station in the middle of Detroit’s dreary, deserted industrial district. Manning it is a skeleton staff of character cliché’s: Hawke is the burned out heavy drinker, Brian Dennehy as an old Irish officer on the verge of retirement, and Drea de Matteo as an over-sexed secretary with a weakness for bad boys.
Into their sleepy last night on the job stumbles a prisoner transport, rerouted to Precinct 13 in the midst of a tremendous snowstorm. The transport is carrying four criminals, including recently captured crime boss Marion Bishop, played by Laurence Fishburne, effortlessly exuding a cool sense of danger and control even when he’s locked up and handcuffed. Fishburne manages intense gravitas mixed with ridiculous amounts of bad-ass style, it’s a shame he hasn’t gotten more places to show it outside The Matrix. Also on board is the unpredictable John Leguizamo, back in the full crack head mode we saw from him in Spun, complete with crazy ticks and lunatic ranting. Leguizamo provides a fair amount of comedy relief for the film, but never in a way that’s out of place or stupid.
The prisoners are locked up, and the cops go back to drinking and partying. It is New Year’s Eve after all, and the station is all but shut down and abandoned. But more than a few people want their new prisoner Bishop dead, and suddenly the precinct’s small group finds themselves cut off from help, under attack, and massively outnumbered. A late night on the job becomes a siege, with the attackers determined not only to kill Bishop, but to slaughter everyone inside with him as well. The police are forced to arm the prisoners and hole up in their battered station, fighting off wave after wave of assault from a determined group of brutal killers.
Precinct 13 is a dreary place in the most dreary part of a dirty, dreary city. Detroit is never portrayed as anything other than the ultimate in urban rot, and as Robocop and countless other films have done before it, Assault on Precinct 13 takes advantage of the city’s reputation to make its story of corrupt police-gang violence seem all that much more believable. What works best about the film is in how willing it is to make that violence as ruthless and crushing as possible. The movie is filled with brutal headshots and violent, but quick deaths. Assault on Precinct 13 has no compunctions about killing off likable and defenseless characters. That makes the danger our rather common group of police and criminal archetypes face seem all the more palpable and their position viscerally desperate.
The film is fast and gritty, capable of doing all the wrong things to all the wrong characters at all the wrong times and still making you like it. As a remake, Assault on Precinct 13 could have tried to soft-pedal the story’s hard edge, in an attempt to reach a wider audience than John Carpenter’s original. But director Jean-Francois Richet chooses instead to push his film even farther than Carpenter’s, to make an uncompromising piece of character driven violence that refuses to be softened.
Though Assault on Precinct 13 succeeds as a harsh action movie, it suffers from occasionally weak dialogue. The siege too, never quite takes on the inevitable sense of doom that hallmarks some of the better assault moments in movie history. But the film is filled with great performers working for a director willing to take his remake as far as possible in a hardcore, gutsy direction. Sure this, like any movie, would be a lot better off without the mugging face of Ja Rule, but I believe modern films are now contractually obliged to employ at least one rapper. I think it’s a union thing. You can’t blame them for that. Despite a few cracks here and there, Assault on Precinct 13 is a dark, pleasant surprise in a month filled with bad comic book movies and racing zebras. Whether or not you’re a fan of the original film, the remake is worth a look.