'Precinct 13': Second Assault Fails

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The 1976 movie "Assault on Precinct 13" was a pulp classic, a B-movie that succeeded on its own terms as a terse, no-frills action thriller and also exemplified the gritty realism for which the 1970s would become revered as a Golden Age.

The 2005 movie "Assault on Precinct 13" will never be described using these words: "pulp," "classic," "terse," "no frills," "real" or "Golden." Oh, it's an action thriller all right, in the sense of those organizing principles under which otherwise instantly forgettable movies are categorized for posterity. Action Thriller is where people will find it in those movie rental guides as they search for a good popcorn-on-the-couch video, right under John Carpenter's original, the version to which they should now and forever be directed.

It's not that the current version of "Assault on Precinct 13" is without action, or even thrills. Dozens of bad guys -- and a few good -- are dispatched with grenades, assault rifles, even an ax; there are so many perfectly executed head shots (except when it comes to the lead players) you'd think it was the opening day of deer season. And it might even qualify as a B-movie, if not for its A-list pretensions. Whereas Carpenter made his film with a terrific cast of total unknowns, French director Jean-Francois Richet has chosen such well-known actors as Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, Gabriel Byrne and Brian Dennehy, thereby destroying the anonymous, it-could-happen vibe that made the original so gripping.

"Assault on Precinct 13" still takes place in a police station that's soon to be shuttered and that suddenly comes under attack while a snowbound busload of convicts are spending the night on their way to a high-security prison. And the plot still pivots on the fact that the police must ally themselves with their criminal charges to fight a bunch of trigger-happy yahoos outside. But in Richet's version, the station is in Detroit (not Los Angeles), it's New Year's Eve (not a long, hot summer) and the guy in charge, a former undercover detective named Roenick (Hawke), doesn't just react instinctively when the gang outside begins firing -- he does so while battling emotional demons that have reduced him to a shell since a bust ended badly eight months earlier. And we must not only endure a jittery, hand-held opening scene that explains Roenick's "issues" but also meet his therapist (Maria Bello) and hear about the sexual predilections of his secretary (Drea de Matteo). Thankfully, Bishop (Fishburne), the gangster Roenick comes to trust during the takedown, doesn't feel as compelled to share during "Assault on Precinct 13," but he does get to deliver a windy disquisition on Eros and Thanatos worthy of Joseph Campbell. (Ah, the tough guy with surprising intellectual and spiritual depths. Hasn't that been over since "Pulp Fiction"?)

Carpenter would never have countenanced this sort of frippery, of course -- he simply plunged his characters into the action and let filmgoers speculate about such things as feelings later. And admittedly, there are some effective action sequences in this version and at least one untimely demise viewers may not see coming down Eight Mile Road. But Richet and screenwriter James DeMonaco put far too many words in the mouths of characters who by rights should lead unexamined lives (they also put an old-growth forest smack-dab in the middle of inner-city Detroit, but that's entertainment).

Sure, it has heavier, higher-tech ordnance and even a weirdly prescient feel -- when Roenick refuses to treat his prisoners like animals he can't help but become the anti-Graner. But "Assault on Precinct 13," like so many current films seeking to exploit the success of their betters, still breaks the first and only commandment of remakes: Thou shall at the very least do justice to the original, or thou shall not be made at all.

Assault on Precinct 13 (109 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for strong violence and profanity and some drug content.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company