Assault on Precinct 13

dir: Jean Francois Richet
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I wouldn’t have thought that a remake of a John Carpenter classic could have worked, but it has. Let’s face it, it’s a good thing that Carpenter himself wasn’t involved, because everything he’s touched in the last decade has turned to shit. Although, now that I think of it, he did already remake Assault on Precinct 13. Except he called it Ghosts of Mars, and we all know how well that turned out.

This is good stuff, though. It’s never going to have as many fans as the 70s classic, and I’m sure many people are going to avoid it like it’s a stinky nappy in a swimming pool just because it’s a remake. But they’d be missing out on a decent B movie if they did.

This isn’t a life-changing experience; it isn’t visual poetry or Dostoevsky debating the Dalai Lama and Deborah Harry whilst covered in baby oil and wrestling at the same time. It’s an action movie where a bunch of people are trying to kill another bunch of people, and the ones that are going to survive are the ones who want it the most. It doesn’t wuss out on the violence, and maintains a relentless, dark tone throughout.

Ethan Hawke and Lawrence Fishburne put in decent performances, one as a burnt-out cop and one as a smooth criminal thrust into a nasty situation by dint of weather and circumstance. In fact everyone in the hefty cast puts on a good show, though their characters are pretty much clones. That works out well. A film like this doesn’t rely on a bunch of unique characters all embarking on painful but enjoyable character arcs where they learn something about themselves and humanity in general and maybe how to macramé.

New Year’s Eve sees the last night of the 13th Precinct in some outer burb of Detroit. The next day all the cops are expected to leave behind the ancient building and move to the shiny new 21st Precinct, which has escalators and reflective surfaces everywhere. If the 21st Precinct looks like a yuppie bar, the trusty old 13th looks like an old pub.

Hawke’s character Sgt Jake Roenick is a guy suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, happy to see out his days behind a desk. Films like this have characters with psychological impediments only so that the character can overcome them by once again being able to kill people. Triumph though adversity indeed.

That girl who used to be on The Sopranos, Drea de Matteo plays a slutty secretary with hidden layers of nastiness. If you perhaps feel that I’m being sexist or a collaborator with the patriarchal hegemony that’s been uplifting and delighting women for centuries, then think again. The first second she is introduced the camera glides lovingly up her fishnet stockings and lingers on her mini-skirted arse as she tells two drooling fools about her latest sexual escapade whereupon she was fucking in public at a baseball game. I don’t need to make this shit up.
For lots of convenient reasons, on a night where the dregs of the precinct’s police force are meant to be closing up the station and celebrating the new year with multiple bottles of booze and plenty of inappropriate sexual harassment in the workplace, a bus carrying a notorious criminal and some other skells is diverted to the station for safe keeping during a nasty snow blizzard.

Some corrupt cops want the nasty criminal dead, and decide that they’re going to attack the police station and kill everyone in their path. The people inside the station, criminals and cops alike, must band together if they want to live through the night.

If it sounds like a familiar scenario, it’s probably not just because of the fact that it’s a remake of Carpenter’s Assault, it’s probably because that siege scenario is both as old as film and as old as story-telling. Defenders holed up in a fort, castle or cave dreading the onslaught of nameless attackers is an ancient story. Sure it’s a remake, but Carpenter’s Precinct 13 was itself a remake of stuff like Rio Bravo and Fort Apache, which all link back to those classical American memes to do with people holding out against overwhelming odds. Stuff like Custer’s Last Stand at Little Big Horn or the Alamo, where a bunch of syphilis-riddled alcoholics failed to survive against the forces of Mexican general Santana. It’s a classic component of the heroic American complex- consciousness. Who am I to try to deconstruct it?

The corrupt cops are lead by Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne) who has no problem killing the cops and innocent bystanders as he explains in a chilling monologue of rationalisation, whereby he justifies it by saying that it’s to save his family and the families of his fellow dirty cops. Family values indeed.

The crims in lockup are a motley collection with an annoying counterfeiter who keeps talking about himself in the 3rd person (Ja Rule), an aggressive female gangster (Aisha Hinds) and a conspiracy nut junkie (John Leguizamo), who’s the comic relief, I guess. Leguizamo is wonderful, especially with his greasy and odd hair and his nervy manner.

In films like this we are pretty much waiting to see who survives and who dies. Like a film involving large snakes, large sharks or people with very large penises, a lot of people are going to die, and we’re supposed to hope that it’s the hero and the love interest that survives. Things aren’t as cut and dry here. The film plays out pretty much the way you would expect it to, but not in such a rote manner that you’re bored enough to start poking yourself in the eye to see how much pain you can take in order to keep yourself entertained.

Then you can take your bloody finger and point it at the director, either to commend him or for the purposes of blame. I’ve heard nothing about presumably French director Jean Francois Richet, but he’s put a sterling effort in here. He makes it feel convincingly like a 70s movie, dark and inviting but efficient and brutal. Like your mum’s cooking.

The villains are professionals at what they do, our Heroes are undermanned and outgunned, but are tenacious and stand a chance because whilst the cops outside are fighting to stay out of jail, the ones inside are fighting to stay alive. And I’ll tell you for free, anyone who’s seen a cockfight or two knows that wanting to kill in order to stay alive is the most powerful motivator there is. Except for Magic the Gathering cards, I guess. I’ve seen nerds stab each other in the neck over those, too.

The Jake Roenick character is somewhat interesting, in that he’s pretty smart but constrained by his own miserable weakness. Hawke does a good job with the character, being also the kind of character that he rarely plays. He’s made a career thus far by playing pretentious, self-indulgent, smartypants, smarmy arseholes you just want to punch repeatedly in the nuts until he finally apologises for Reality Bites. But with this flick and his good work in Training Day he shows that he can play broader characters than we usually expect.

Lawrence Fishburne is just too cool for words, and plays the role with obvious relish. I could probably listen to a tape of him reading out his local phonebook and it would still be cool. He has to be super cool since his character’s first name is Marion after all. He represents an interesting counterpoint to Sgt Roenick, in that he clearly outlines just how survival fixated he is, and how there are no morals, ethics or compunctions that will stop him if the situation puts him in a position where it’s his survival or someone else’s. Cold but still charming, and we love that in a badass character.

There are plot holes so grand and wide that you could airlift and fly the Pope’s recently vacated body through them, lead-lined coffin and all. The film tries to maintain its fairly unbelievable premise (such a multitude of coincidences have to happen simultaneously to render such a situation possible for such a length of time), and it mostly does a good job.
You still have to think, though, that something like this couldn’t really happen in a city in this day and age.

Overall I thought it was an entertaining and lean action movie. I liked it. They generally don’t bother making flicks like this any more except where they overload a flick with stars and avoid actual character actors. There is much to like in it, but you could probably wait for it on DVD. With beers and pizza involved even your lame girlfriends or vegetarian boyfriends (or fey transgender life partners, don’t want to leave anyone out) might enjoy it too.

You may be wondering if it’s even playing anywhere at the moment. I assure you, despite the best attempts of whichever cinemas are screening it to bury it completely, that it’s still playing somewhere near you on this wide, dry continent that we share. If you’re curious, that is. If not, then get off the net and go watch reality television programming like your overlord masters want you to, you tools.

7 bloody, gaping headshot wounds out of 10.

‘I don't bed criminals, okay? I fuck bad boys.’ – Iris, Assault on Precinct 13