Admittedly, I was unfamiliar with John Carpenter’s original 1976 film. When that film premiered, I was busy with my initial film education, catching up on classics and foreign films screening at the Orson Welles and Coolidge Corner theaters in the Boston area. So I approached this remake without any baggage. Truthfully, I went in with low expectations. After all, it’s January, the studios tend to release less than stellar fare while the more high profile Oscar bait films continue to play the cineplexes.
I have to admit that I rather enjoyed ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 up to a point. The premise is an intriguing one that borrows heavily from Westerns. A group is hold up at a single location and those at that location find themselves under attack. In order to survive, the motley crew must learn to trust one another and work together as a team. In this case, the setting is an obsolete police precinct on a snowy New Year’ s Eve. It’s the last evening that this building is to be used, so most of the equipment has been dismantled and there’s only a skeleton crew on duty, including Sergeant Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke), a narc now on desk duty after an undercover operation goes badly awry (shown in the fidgety first sequence), sexy secretary Iris Ferry (Drea de Matteo), and veteran Jasper O’Shea (Brian Dennehy). Despite the threat of a blizzard, police psychologist Alex Serbian (Maria Bello) shows up for her weekly meeting with Jake. Of course, she ends up stranded at the police station when her car breaks down.
We are introduced to the crime lord Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), as well. In a rather disturbing sequence, Bishop murders a man while attending Mass and engages in a shootout in the church before eventually being captured. Due to the holiday and the snowstorm, he is to be incarcerated for the weekend and is transported with a handful of other criminals, the junkie thief Beck (John Leguizamo), female gang member Anna (Aisha Hinds) and the hustler Smiley (Jeffrey Atkins a.k.a. Ja Rule), who has the annoying habit of referring to himself in the third person. Circumstances force the prisoners to be held at Precinct 13 and what appears to be a rather routine evening soon takes a bad turn.
Masked gunmen break into the holding area with the intent of murdering Bishop. It seems he has knowledge of police corruption and the dirty cops want to stop him at all costs, even if it means killing other members of the force. Director Jean-Francois Richet ratchets up the tension with camera placement and editing. The film plays like a version of Custer’s Last Stand and one begins to wonder exactly how (and if) those trapped will survive. But there’s a certain point where James DeMonaco’s screenplay falters; in a sense he writes himself into a corner. A pivotal twist is easily seen coming as is the final denouement. It also doesn’t help that the director shows the deaths of most of the characters (good or bad) in excruciating close-up, including several with bullet holes in the middle of their foreheads.
Despite the extreme violence, though, the film works on a rather primal level. Richet builds tension and the actors all deliver well modulated and acceptable performances. ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 works well as counter-programming to other fare at movie houses. It’s hardly an exceptional piece of work, but it is solid film making.
Rating: B- MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and language throughout, and some drug content Running time: 109 mins.