“Assault on Precinct 13” isn’t the worst action movie ever made. Nor was it a complete waste of $9.25 and 109 minutes of my life. Parts of the film were genuinely enjoyable: there were tense action sequences; there was witty banter. But “Assault” suffers from a very common, very unfortunate problem: it is a remake of a much better movie. Director Jean-Francois Richet has tempered John Carpenter’s brash, ballsy humor and imbued the film with forced angst and attempted moral complexity. The result is a film that is occasionally fun, but mostly drab, hackneyed and too pretentious for its own good.
Most of the film takes place during a single night — New Year’s Eve, 2004, the last night before Detroit’s derelict Precinct 13 closes its doors forever. Only three members of its staff remain to finish packing up: Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke), a sergeant with a predictably troubled past; Iris Ferry (Drea de Matteo), a predictably flirtatious secretary; and Jasper O’Shea (Brian Dennehy), a grizzled veteran who predictably plans to retire the next day.
Stock characters in position, Richet adds a ferocious blizzard and a bus full of convicts to the mix, and the pump is primed. The bus is rerouted to the ill-equipped and understaffed Precinct 13 because of the snow, and the long night begins. Among the prisoners is notorious gangster Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), and it doesn’t take long for his enemies to learn where he’s been taken. Soon after Bishop’s arrival, masked figures lay siege to the precinct.
The twist: the ski-masked villains aren’t just gangsters (as in the 1976 film) but dirty cops who have been working with Bishop for years, and don’t want him to make it to the witness stand to testify against them. Unfortunately for the rest of the motley ensemble temporarily inhabiting the precinct, the shadowy figures outside don’t plan to leave any witnesses. In order to survive the night, Roenick soon realizes that everyone in the beleaguered precinct is going to have to trust each other. The handcuffs come off and the assault rifles are passed out!
The film does best during interactions between the prisoners and their erstwhile guards. It is at these moments that Richet lets go of the psychological melodramas that plague the rest of the film and lets the actors have fun. And the prisoners are far more lively and interesting than the law-abiding characters. John Leguizamo’s nervous felon Beck is a particularly bright spot, and Ja Rule acquits himself reasonably well (too bad he can’t rap).
Tragically, humor takes a back seat to awkward heart-to-hearts, tepid hints of romance and endless faux-psychoanalysis. The low-point of the film comes when Hawke gives his attractive psychologist — who through a series of improbable events ends up at the precinct on the fateful night — a cringe-inducing pep talk. “How do you keep it all together?” she asks with groveling admiration. He turns to her and answers gravely: “I just think about living.” Nietzsche would most certainly be proud.
Hawke does an excellent job during the first 10 minutes of the film, when his character goes undercover and pretends to be a cocaine dealer. In fact, he is far more believable as a drug peddler than as a police officer. As a result, the strength of his performance in the first scene makes his lackluster acting in the rest of the film more glaringly awful. Fishburne is worse (it seems he will never again play a character who isn’t Morpheus, a pity for such a fine actor). His somber sagacity may have worked well in “The Matrix,” but it is laughably out of place in “Assault.” Matteo, of “Sopranos” fame, evinces a pleasing enough mini-skirted brand of pluck, but doesn’t do much else, and none of the other performances are even close to memorable.
The fundamental problem is that the good guys take themselves far more seriously than the audience does. Yet the villains aren’t much better — we don’t see them much, and when they drop in every now and then it is to spout out the usual cop-gone-bad muck in thick Italian mobster accents.
On the positive side, we do get to see Laurence Fishburne throw flaming bottles of alcohol around, and Hawke manages to stab one bad cop in the eye with an icicle. And the villains boast an impressive array of high-tech gadgetry, including “flash-bang” grenades that shoot blinding light.
If only Richet had the good sense to stick to humor and explosions. But he tries to bring tragedy and poignance into a film where they have no place, so when a car smashes into an obstruction, bringing its occupants to a supposedly heart-rending demise — the fourth time such an accident happens in the film — we just laugh.