Starring: Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, Gabriel Byrne, John Leguizamo
Director: Jean-François Richet
Screenwriter: James DeMonaco
Rating : R for strong violence and language throughout, and for some drug content.
This 2005 film is a remake of the 1976 John Carpenter classic, produced by the same people who brought us “Training Day”, and it was certainly a surprise on a market saturated with frame-by-frame copycat remakes like 2006’s “The Omen”, an uninspired carbon copy of the original featuring improved visuals and a bad Gregory Peck imitation by Liev Schreiber. “Assault on Precinct 13” delivers unusual signs of intelligence, scarce enough to warrant its B flick status, but enough to keep one awake.
In the original, Bishop was the fearless “sheriff”, forced to protect his precinct from scores of cop-hating thugs. Now, the Bishop of this film is Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), an extremely dangerous criminal (the old Napoleon Wilson character, this time more street), caught after murdering an undercover cop in a church (that’s just how badass he is). The “sheriff” is a Sgt. Roenick (Ethan Hawke), former undercover officer, now hiding behind a desk, pumping himself full of alcohol and pills to forget about an unfortunate undercover stint which ended with two of his colleagues getting killed because of his bad call. The 13th precinct (this time actually called 13) is still being closed down (right on New Year’s Eve), which once again means not enough police and not enough guns. The prisoner bus transporting Bishop and a handful of other prisoners is rerouted to precinct 13 because of a higway accident. With all plot requirements in place, the siege is ready to commence.
The big change from the ’76 version is that the attackers this time are corrupt cops, scared that if Bishop gets to the trial he’ll rat them all out. So it’s clear that not one of the people inside the precinct are supposed to make it out alive, as the leader of the bad guys Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne) overstates, they have to “put them all down, without pause, without regard”. Roenick decides to release and arm the prisoners and work together in a fragile alliance in order to survive. I would have to say this version adds more to the police and criminals fighting side by side idea. There’s always a sense of tensions added to it. Then there’s also the irony of the criminals helping the cops, while bad cops try to kill them all. While the original was a sort of urban western story concerned with building atmosphere, the remake feels like “Die Hard” in an abandoned precinct concerned more about building a traditional plot with twists and cliches, sometimes annoyingly predictable, yet at times surprising. Jean-Francois Richet seems aware of the constraints of the genre and manipulates these cliches in his favor, although one of the most annoying ones is that of the traitor within the precinct. It’s annoying because it’s so painfully obvious, it’s like there’s a tag that spells “traitor” on him. Maybe it was supposed to divert attention since traitors are rarely this obvious, but no, not here. Still, there is surprise in the way the characters are killed off, even though the film dispenses of them almost in slasher fashion, it’s still less obvious who’s going to bite the bullet, and that’s a big plus. Also, this time there’s the perspective of the bad guys, polarised by a dominant villainous figure, which turns the siege in a strategic confrontation of sorts.
Although I’m an admirer of Carpenter’s work, in the case of “Assault on Precinct 13”, I preffer the 2005 version, although the potato score differs very little. It’s a solid action film, much less a remake, but a complete reconstruction with the original as the foundation, not as the blueprint. There’s more action, a solid, well selected cast, an entertaining plot with some nice touches and an interesting directorial vision that in the end serves the same ideas that made the original a B classic.