Assault on Precinct 13, loosely based on the 1976 film of the same name written and directed by John Carpenter, is a gritty, violent journey that’s about twice as good as you’d expect it to be. While it is clearly a genre film, it has been nicely updated and includes some twists and turns that will be more than satisfactory for the average viewer.
Jake Roenick (Hawke) is quite the troubled police officer these days. It’s been eight months since he lost two of his comrades in a sting operation gone wrong, and he has since turned to the pill and the bottle to get through his days. His psychiatrist, Alex (Bello), still meets with him often to discuss his problems, but he believes she wants something more.
Jake is the sergeant at Precinct 13 in Detroit, a rundown establishment that is preparing to close its doors. Working with him now is sex-starved secretary Iris (de Matteo) and old-timer Jasper O’Shea (Dennehy). It’s New Year’s Eve, and the crew is settling in for an uneventful night before they shut things down.
Across town, hardened criminal Marion Bishop (Fishburne) has just killed a cop during another operation gone wrong. He has been the longtime target of Officer Marcus Duvall (Byrne), who pins him shortly after the killing. On this snowy night and with the holiday, the only option is to transfer Bishop to jail. He, along with a colorful group of prisoners that include junkie Beck (Leguizamo), small-timer Smiley (Ja Rule), is set for transport to jail. Because of the weather conditions, however, the bus is re-routed to Precinct 13 where things are about to become anything but uneventful.
We quickly discover that Bishop has been the ringleader in an underground drug operation that has a trail of blood money that leads directly to Duvall and several other members of the police force. Since Bishop has been captured, the corrupt cops have made it their goal to kill Bishop before he can stand trial and rat them all out.
The situation is set. Duvall and his men have surrounded Precinct 13 and clearly have the upper hand in terms of weaponry and strategy. Roenick, his staff (Alex even winds up back at the precinct after some bad luck), and the prisoners must band together to protect themselves, with each having their own reason for trusting one another. Let the mayhem begin.
Sure, this is a fairly implausible story and begs the asking of such questions as “Isn’t there an easier way to kill a mobster than holding an overnight siege?” Or, “wouldn’t someone, anyone, hear the near-constant gunfire and use of plastic explosives?” Such questions are moot, and the screenplay knows it. Never does the film take itself overly seriously or get preachy. This film exists to entertain on a dumb action film level, and that it does in spades.
Assault on Precinct 13 is surprisingly malicious and will catch most moviegoers off-guard. This is a far cry from the rash of watered-down PG-13 films we have seen lately. As it turns out, this works to the film’s advantage tremendously because it seems fresh.
Writer James DeMonaco has done an excellent job of updating Carpenter’s original story. He has inserted enough twists to keep the viewer guessing throughout, and several of the characters who seem guaranteed to make it out alive do not. There is one scene of such unexpected violence that the viewer, if unsure before, is now positive that this film means business.
Director Jean-Francois Richet sets the tone immediately and never lets up. The film has an ominous blue sheen to nearly every frame, and the film’s climax, involving a silent cat-and-mouse chess game in the forest, exemplifies his directing prowess. This is one snowy, cold film, and in more ways than one.
The casting is spot on, with Ethan Hawke striking the same chords that he did in Training Day. His opening scene hijinks are excellent, and from there he taps into the scarred, weathered cop whom he plays so well. Laurence Fishburne again proves that no one can play a stone-faced bad ass better than him, and his character is given some great nuances. Drea de Matteo and Maria Bello turn in solid performances as the only females in the entire film, with Bello exuding her “wrong place, wrong time” persona.
Faring worse are John Leguizamo and Ja Rule, playing a strung-out junkie and smalltime thief, respectively. Leguizamo is his usual annoying self and contributes very little other than scatter shot comic relief. Ja Rule (is it possible to make a movie without a rapper in it anymore?) is flat-out unnecessary to the story and only provides another recognizable face for kids who just turned seventeen yesterday.
Regardless of plot holes and implausibility, this update of Assault on Precinct 13 is well-crafted and stays entertaining for the entire runtime. This will probably be the best escapist entertainment of the winter season, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it for those looking for a journey back to old school B-action film glory.
Studio: Rogue Pictures
Length: 109 Minutes
Rating: R for strong violence and language throughout, and for some drug content.
Theatrical Release: January 19, 2005
Directed by: Jean Francois-Richet
Written by: James DeMonaco. Based upon the 1976 screenplay by John Carpenter.
Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Ethan Hawke, Ja Rule, Maria Bello, Gabriel Byrne, Brian Dennehy