Assault on Precinct 13

written by James DeMonaco from the screenplay by John Carpenter

directed by Jean-Francois Richet

starring Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne and Gabriel Byrne


review by Stephen Notley


Assault on Precinct 13 is a remake, a new-century take on John Carpenter's first studio film of cops and prisoners defending a cut-off precinct house from a heavily armed invading force from way back in 1976.

At this point I have to confess I haven't seen Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13. But by all accounts it's a gritty, taut little film that shows off Carpenter's skill at creating tension between characters locked in a box against an external threat, a structure he'd return to in films like The Fog, Prince of Darkness and most brilliantly in The Thing.

Come to think of it, that structure has really caught on since Carpenter's film. It's all over Aliens and its clones; pretty much every zombie movie breaks down to the same thing. Hell, pretty much every horror movie ends up in that scenario. We're very familiar with these kind of action-movie pressure-cooker situations now, and that's how AoP13 2005 feels: familiar.

Familiar in a bad way, like we know everything that's gonna happen. And the stuff that does happen, the movie takes its sweet time before uncorking any of it. Ethan Hawke putters around as the staff sergeant getting over feeling bad about a couple of his partners dying a few months earlier, Brian Dennehy sips coffee as another cop and Drea De Matteo (Adriana from The Sopranos) wear fishnet tights and gets ready for New Years. After a long, long time a bus with some more characters shows up, Laurence Fishburne as Bishop the badass criminal and John Leguizamo as a twitchy junkie. Into jail they go, some more setup, and then finally people start attacking from outside. In the original movie, the attackers were amped-up street gangs who'd stumbled across a cache of assault weapons; in this movie it's a bunch of corrupt cops, which I suppose fits more neatly with the times. Either way it doesn't make much difference; the movie is more about what's happening on the inside.

This should be a tense situation, Ethan Hawke forced to release Fishburne and the other prisoners to fight against a common enemy. I imagine the situation in the original was tense. This time it's not tense, and the reason is Laurence Fishburne. His Bishop is essentially Morpheus from the Matrix movies; that is, he's cool, unflappable, with almost messianic serenity. It's a compelling persona, but for a movie like this, in this situation, dramatically, you want somebody who's a little bit upset with the prospect of dying, and maybe a little excited about the possibility of escaping from prison. But no. Fishburne acts like he's running a leadership training seminar for Ethan Hawke, quietly nodding his head and backing up his decisions, never pushing him or getting under his skin or doing anything, you know, interesting, just patiently waiting for Ethan Hawke to figure out how to use the Matrix…er, defend the Precinct.

In the absence of any compelling drama, there's not really much else to hold the attention. The action scenes are rather muddy; we never get a half-decent 3-dimensional sense of the layout of the precinct office, so fighting lacks geometry. For fans of close-ups of open-eyed heads of dead people against the snow with single pea-sized bullet wounds in their foreheads, this movie has several of those shots. Beyond that --and, come to think of it, including that-- there's no reason to bother, really. The special edition DVD of Carpenter's original just came out; rent that instead.