A loose retelling of the 1976 cult film by John Carpenter (made two years before he hit it big with the groundbreaking "Halloween
"), "Assault on Precinct 13" has updated the story and setting for modern audiences but has wisely retained its gritty, take-no-prisoners, B-movie attitude. Rated R for a reason and notably more splatterific than the majority of horror films tend to be in these compromising, toned-down PG-13 times, "Assault on Precinct 13" has the body count of a slasher flick and the nail-biting, full-throttle know-how of a "Die Hard" or "Speed." Directed with unobtrusive style and tightness by Jean-Francois Richet, it is a down-and-dirty thriller that understands it isn't high art, and doesn't try to be anything other than a pleasingly taut effort that action buffs will go wild over.
It has been eight months since Sgt. Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke) witnessed his two close partners gunned down in a botched undercover drug sting, and, unable to come to terms with the traumatizing experience, has chosen mellow office work and a weekly session with forthright psychiatrist Alex Sabian (Maria Bello) over moving back out on the field. Stuck in Detroit's aging Precinct 13 with retiring Sgt. Jasper O'Shea (Brian Dennehy) and sex-minded secretary Iris Ferry (Drea de Matteo) on the eve of 2005, Jake receives a group of last-minute, unwanted criminals when the snowy roads make driving to the main prison treacherous.
The bad news keeps getting worse for Jake when a gang of crooked cops headed by Organized Crime and Racketeering Squad chief Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne) surround the building and refuse to let anyone leave alive. Their main target: the just-arrested, notoriously unsympathetic crime lord Marion Bishop (Laurence Bishop), who plans to expose their dirty dealings. With no way out but plenty of ways in, Jake, Jasper, and Iris have no choice but to set the criminals free and join forces with them in the ultimate fight for their lives.
Graphically violent and merciless, "Assault on Precinct 13" is refreshingly unpretentious in its single goal to entertain and put a jolt in any non-squeamish viewer sick to death of cookie-cutter genre movies. With twisted glee, screenwriter James DeMonaco delights in twisting expectations and suddenly making old-hat cliches fresh and surprising. Where the story is heading is always clear, to be sure, but how it gets there and who makes it out with their lives is where the real fun lies. Not all of the ultimate survivors are quite the ones viewers would immediately suspect, and one particular murder scene is so sudden, so stark, and so tragic that, from that point on, it is certain that all bets are off. The pre-titles sequence is also a startling opener in that its catchy, rapid-fire dialogue, jittery camerawork, and abrupt acts of gory savagery recall the flair of an early Quentin Tarantino.
Writer DeMonaco and his mostly able cast bring added dimensionsif not three, then definitely two-and-a-halfto their stock parts that also exceed the norm. Ethan Hawke (2004's "Before Sunset
") and Laurence Fishburne (2003's "Mystic River
") are a solid, intense match for each other, with Hawke playing Jake as a downhearted man still willing to put faith in humanity and Fishburne portraying Marion as a steely cynic who lost that same ability years ago. As fitting as they are, the best character work comes from the two ladies in the ensemble. Drea de Matteo (2002's "Deuces Wild
" and TV's "Joey") brings a realistic, high-spirited pluckiness to office secretary Iris that is offset by an underlying vulnerability. Meanwhile, Maria Bello (2004's "Secret Window
") is given the fullest character arc as Jake's psychiatrist, Alex, who also happens to be at the precinct when the siege begins. Bello's Alex starts off as an undeniably willful working gal who is faced with a frightening, unthinkable situation she recognizes fate has brought her to. As she desperately fears for her life, Alex suddenly reclaims her inner strength and honorability in a scene of amazing powerthe film's most effective. Less impressive is the stunt-casting of shaky rapper-turned-actor Ja Rule (2003's "Scary Movie 3
") and a thoroughly annoying John Leguizamo (2002's "Empire
"), whose motor-mouthed thief character, Beck, can't disappear from the story fast enough.
Shot with blustery, indelible capability by cinematographer Robert Gantzone can almost feel the chill of its snow-filled settingand rarely taking time to slacken the snappy pace, "Assault on Precinct 13" is more arresting, more adrenaline-fueled, and better edited in any five-minute section than the graceless recent "Elektra
" is in its entirety. A climactic scene in which Jake plays a silent game of cat-and-mouse in the nighttime woods is particularly nerve-jangling.
Alas, not everything is wine and roses, as for all of its technical prowess and action-movie skill is a motion picture lacking much of a point or a catharsis. Furthermore, the almost nonstop violence and bloodshed, while commendable for giving the middle finger to the tight-vested MPAA, does get fairly uncomfortable at times in its fair disregard for human life. These elements and a couple iffy plot particulars aside, the movie is intended to be pure, thrill-seeking escapism, and on those grounds it succeeds. If "Assault on Precinct 13" wasn't exactly screaming to be madethe film is simply the latest in a dismaying stream of unnecessary cinematic remakesat least this retelling, like 2004's "Dawn of the Dead
" before it, is a confident, smart, and respectful example of how to pull the feat off with aplomb.