On Screen

Minor 'Assault'

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2005

IT'S BEST not to have seen John Carpenter's 1976 "Assault on Precinct 13" if you want to fully enjoy the so-called remake, which has spared nothing in terms of overblown action and character caricature, and has clearly saved a bundle with B-tier stars and filmmakers.

The latest "Assault on Precinct 13," starring Ethan Hawke, Gabriel Byrne and Laurence Fishburne, set in a Detroit snowstorm, starts with the New Year's Eve celebrations of a haunted cop, Sgt. Jake Roenick (Hawke), and his colleagues, including Irish-cop-cliche Jasper "Old School" O'Shea (Brian Dennehy) and cartoonishly hot-to-trot secretary Iris (Drea de Matteo), who have to sit out the last few hours of a precinct that's about to be shut down. But their intention to partay their way into 2005 is derailed by a certain prisoner bus that's forced to stop over because of the storm.

The handcuffed prisoners onboard include Beck (John Leguizamo), Smiley (Jeffrey "Ja Rule" Atkins) and, most significantly, Marion Bishop (Fishburne), a cool-as-a-cuke gangster who knows where all the bodies are buried on both sides of the law.

No sooner have the bad guys been dumped into cells when the shooting starts, from outside and from cops. It seems that Marcus Duvall (Byrne), who heads the Organized Crime and Racketeering Squad, wants to ice Bishop before he blabs about bad cops to a grand jury. Bishop knows this and tells Jake. Precinct 13 is outgunned and outnumbered. Jake decides to release the prisoners and hand them weapons. The siege is on.

A venture by Focus Features' genre outfit Rogue Pictures (which seems to be modeled on Miramax's horror division, Dimension), the film is an obviously manufactured B-movie. You're supposed to feel cool and deliciously unsophisticated for even seeing it. And yet, there's that smell of corporate affectedness. This is a movie to enjoy and laugh at, simultaneously.

Iris the secretary, for instance, is irrepressibly hot (with the subtlety of Jessica Rabbit) for bad guys like Bishop. So when she gets thrown in a corner with him, well, she gets nervous and weak-kneed. The gal can't help herself! And there's a sort of cheapo, post-"Basic Instinct" sexual tension between Jake and a shrink (Maria Bello) assigned to monitor his emotional health following an emotionally traumatic episode in his past. She, rather absurdly, has chosen New Year's Eve (she's dressed skimpily for a later party) to check him out. She gets caught in the siege, of course.

Hawke is emotionally haunted in that method-acting way: lots of tics and trembly fingered reaches for the antidepressants. Acting! No doubt, he stayed "in character" throughout the shoot. And then there's the just-back-from-the-dentist sparkle on Leguizamo's teeth. He's supposed to be a low-life heroin addict, for crying out loud, but he's got a smile like George Hamilton.

It's good for a silly laugh, this stuff. And maybe this movie will draw renewed attention to Carpenter's eminently better movie. Seeing the two movies side by side, you'll notice the fascinating differences, ranging from Carpenter's setting of the story in a claustrophobic Los Angeles to the racial and moral switcheroo of Bishop. In the 1976 version, Bishop is the black cop keeping the bad guys out. In the latest movie, as mentioned, Bishop is the cool, black heavy in the jail cell. Incidentally, Carpenter's film, in turn, was inspired by Howard Hawks's 1959 "Rio Bravo," in which a sheriff (John Wayne) and his drunken deputy (Dean Martin) try to keep a gang of varmints out of their jail in southwestern Texas. The further back you go, the better the movie gets. I'll take Dino's twisted, gin-soaked smile over Leguizamo's designer teeth any time.

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (R, 109 minutes) -- Contains violence, obscenity and sexual situations. Area theaters.

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