Assault on Precinct 13

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
Jan. 18 2005 6:41 PM

Officers Down

The lousy remake of Assault on Precinct 13.

I had a spasm of dread when I got my invitation to the remake of the John Carpenter 1976 action picture Assault on Precinct 13 (20th Century Fox). As a relatively new father, I didn't need to see a recreation of that ghastly scene with the little girl and the ice-cream truck. So I e-mailed the publicist and was relieved when he wrote back to say that there were no little dead girls in this one. However, he added, lots and lots and lots of other people get killed. Well, that's OK: Once they go through puberty, they're fair game.

The downside of that lack of shock is that the picture, directed by Jean-Francois Richet from a script by James DeMonaco, doesn't have any of the free-floating malignancy of Carpenter's brutally efficient quasi-horror movie—a Howard Hawks Western reimagined as a Night of the Living Dead-style nightmare, in which waves of zombified street gangs (virtually faceless) bombard a freshly-abandoned police station on the wild new urban frontier. Assault was the ur-Carpenter thriller, featuring all the code-of-macho-honor themes that endear the B-director to waves of zombified auteurists. (I know, his heroines are often hard and macho, too, which seemed progressive twenty years ago. But they're basically blanks with big breasts.)

Where Carpenter trafficked in nonspecific evil, treating punk street gangs like old-school Injuns, DeMonaco gives us rogue cops—apparently the whole bloody police force of Detroit, led by Gabriel Byrne. The one honest man-in-blue is played by Ethan Hawke, who opens the picture with a bravura turn as a manic drug dealer before revealing himself as an undercover agent (too bad—he was more fun as a bad guy).

After losing his partner in a shootout, Hawke closes down emotionally; he doesn't want to acknowledge that he's bleeding on the inside. On a blizzardy New Year's Eve, when he's manning the deserted police station (its last night), his therapist (Maria Bello) shows up in a doozy of a red dress (short, low-cut) to have an, um, session. Bad timing: Shortly thereafter, Bello and Drea De Matteo as a secretary who dresses like a dominatrix and likes to "fuck bad boys" (her words) are among the occupants forced to circle the wagons when the bad guys descend—intent on extracting gangster cop-killer Laurence Fishburne before he can blab about his ties to Detroit's finest.

The credits proclaim this is a "Why Not?" production. The obvious retort is, "Why?" The new angle is lazy and stupid: L.A. Confidential notwithstanding, bad cops are scary because they work alone or in tiny cliques; they don't come galloping over the hill in war paint shooting modern-day arrows (rockets, machine gun sprays, etc.). But even if you surrender to the premise, Richet isn't particularly adept at action—although there's enough gore, at least, to keep you from getting too bored. (My notes at one point read: "Guy shot in head. Guy stabbed in neck. Adam's apple clawed out. Guy shot in eye. Blood spurts.") The most likable character (and actor) is cruelly dispatched at the two-thirds mark; after that, Assault on Precinct 13 seems an even more heartless exercise.

Given the perfunctory plotting and the cringeworthy dialogue (as stilted as Carpenter's, but without Carpenter's economy), the cast does better than fine. Hawke and Fishburne have a stare-down contest, each vowing to table their inevitable showdown until after they get out of their jam, and both are good enough actors to give this tired trope some emotional subtext. Fishburne is sly enough to use his Matrix-honed gravity for laughs—no one else could have brought off the speech about Eros and Thanatos when Mateo jiggles her tongue at him. Brian Dennehy just finished doing James Tyrone, Sr., in a good production of Long Day's Journey into Night, and he brings some O'Neillesque Irish braggadocio to an unrewarding part. De Matteo is a hoot in her hooker get-up, and Bello has a lovable tremulousness that the film desperately needs. The supporting cast of cops and prisoners (among them Ja Rule, who does the closing credits number) has a lot of entertaining zip—except maybe for John Leguizamo, who hits his one-part so hard it goes off-key.

Here's a testament to the fundamental lousiness of Assault on Precinct 13: during the climax, a throbbing. monotonous five-note motif began to run through my head. "What is that?" I wondered. Da-dada-da-da/ da-dada-deh-da… Oh my God, it was the Carpenter theme from the original! I sat there humming it to myself for the next fifteen minutes, trying in vain to bring a little rhythm to the movie, trying like mad to get into it. ... 11:30 a.m. PT

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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