The remake of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 opens with a jittery, wired undercover sting gone wrong. Ethan Hawke, all too convincing as a junkie, is leading two cops in an effort to take out some Serbian mobsters, but it all goes to hell, as your average pre-credits sequence sting will do, and Hawke is the only survivor. He ends up taking out the main baddie with a gory shot to the head that gives the guy the Zapruder makeover, and you start to think that maybe this film is going to be going places.
If by “going places” you mean “an endless series of boring headshots,” you’re in for a treat. The opening of the film is essentially the only good part, with the rest of it being a slow trod to mediocrity. And frankly, mediocrity is the worst thing you can have in a film.
It’s important to note, by the way, that this is not a review that will compare the film to the original. The last time I saw that movie it was on VHS tape that my friend made off a Wometco Home Theater broadcast, so that’s maybe the mid to late 80s. I don’t have enough memory of the film to even begin comparing, and it wouldn’t be fair – the new version goes out of its way to get far from the original by making the bad guys cops.
I don’t know if that’s supposed to be a twist – it sure plays out that way in the film, but every ad for the movie trumpets it, so I guess it’s fair game to talk about here. This twist is inherently stupid and more or less ruins the film, but we’ll get to the absurdity of the basic premise in a bit.
Let’s start with Ethan Hawke, the main symbol of what’s wrong with this movie. Hawke is woefully miscast here – he’s supposed to be a hard-edged cop who has been pushed to despair by the failed sting at the opening of the picture. He’s kept himself on desk duty, determined to not have to be in a scenario where his decision making kills someone else. In the hands of an actor like Thomas Jane, someone with balls and grit, this cliché would work, but here Hawke just seems petulant. It’s as if his Dead Poet’s Society character somehow ended up in the police force and just couldn’t hack it.
What’s awesome about the casting of Ethan Hawke, though, is the metatextual aspect. In the film he runs Precinct 13, which is being shut down on New Year’s Eve. At the last minute a prison bus is forced off the highway in a blizzard and must stop at the all-but-abandoned Precinct. Among the prisoners is Laurence Fishburne, almost completely transformed into Ken Foree. He’s a mob kingpin and he’s been caught red-handed killing a cop.
So here’s the good part – just like in Training Day we get to see Hawke acting against a strong black man, and just like in Training Day, we see Hawke getting squashed. But when you add the two films together you have to start wondering about Hawke’s relationship with strong black men. There’s something being said about race here in these two films, where the black villains are strong and nefarious and well-dressed and charismatic and the white hero is a nebbishy jerk who seems like he can never take down this Nubian evil. It’s like these movies are reflecting the consciousness of Limbaugh’s America, where the white man is the underdog while the black man gets all the best perks and runs roughshod over the community. I think that Hawke, a pretty liberal guy, would blanche at the thought of this being the subtext of the films, but it’s right there on the screen. Looking at the black gangster in both films as a metaphor for affirmative action – people getting things that they don’t deserve while the white guy has to struggle to break even – is interesting. And even if it’s a faulty observation, keep it in mind while watching the film, as it will be the most interesting thing going on in the theater.
Back to the movie – it turns out that Fishburne is in cahoots with some very crooked cops, and they want to off him, because it was one of them he killed and they know he’ll testify and ruin their fun. Here’s where the idea of making the bad guys cops really just ruins the whole picture – rather than try some through the front door trickery, these rotten cops just break into the jail and try to shoot Fishburne. Of course they screw the pooch and kill a cop, and the whole siege begins.
That’s the first dumb thing. It just makes no sense that the bad cops (led by Gabriel Byrne, palpably looking for his paycheck) go in with guns ablazing. There is no reason that they couldn’t forge documents or something to convince Hawke to just let Fishburne go (and considering the level of equipment they get their hands on in the film, I think that this nitpick is more than justified). Of course there would be no film in that case, but it still sticks in your logical craw.
Not as much as their sheer incompetence does, though. The bad guy cops are armed with the latest technology – night vision goggles, body armor, heavy duty machine guns, flashbang grenades, sniper rifles, etc etc etc. They’re set up for a siege, like any big city police department would be. Meanwhile our heroes have a couple of handguns and a tommy gun. At some point in the film you really have to wonder why these bad guy cops don’t just bust down the door and lay waste to the place. It makes absolutely no sense that they keep coming in with these stealth tactics, or that they suck enough that Drea DeMatteo can take them down. With the bad guys being ordinary hoods or criminals you could believe that they don’t have the tactical training and that their weaponry would be on par with the defenders of Precinct 13, but in this scenario our heroes are so outgunned that it’s just embarrassing.
Here’s the thing – if the rest of the film worked I would be able to look past that kind of stuff. That’s the contract between filmmaker and audience with these kinds of goofy action films. On the filmmaker’s side there’s an agreement to make the action fun and exciting, and maybe to show us a thing or two that we’ve never seen before onscreen. It really is helpful if they cast their leads as likeably as possible. On the audience side we agree to let the really inane shit slide if we’re having enough fun.
But the rest of the film doesn’t work. We’ll get to how bad the action is in a second – let’s talk about how bad the cast is first.
In general I have no problem with the cast of this film on paper. They’re mostly talented people. But they are either saddled with characters and actions that are beyond annoying or they’re just walking through the movie towards crafts services. In fact only Fishburne gives any sort of reasonable performance – he makes up for the debacle that was the last two Matrix films by being the year’s bad-ass to beat. But he can’t make up for everyone else. John Leguizamo continues his role from Spun as a junkie who could almost be enjoyable, but is essentially annoying. Maria Bello is just awful in her role as Hawke’s psychiatrist who ludicrously gets stuck in the precinct, and Drea de Matteo is the human equivalent of an exploding brothel as yet another tacky, classless character.
True hate must be set aside for Ja Rule, as Smiley, a con who talks about himself in the third person. This is easily the worst character trait you can have outside of being a genocidal maniac, and the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome brand of acting that Ja Rule brings to his role never helps. Poor Brian Dennehy. Did you see Carl Weathers’ guest appearance on Arrested Development, where he’s going on about the kinds of stew he made from stolen crafts services items? Dennehy seems to be there. Finally, Aisha Hinds is Anna, a walking stereotype who seeks to avoid being a stereotype by claiming that she has never been a criminal. Still, she’s so shrill – like many of the other characters – that the only suspense about her fate is how soon the filmmakers can manage to kill her.
Ah, the filmmakers. French director Jean-Francois Richet has managed to make a movie completely unglued from geography. Not only is the physical location of Precinct 13 sketchy at best, he has set a siege film inside a structure that has no apparent physical coherence. It’s important in a movie like this, where almost the whole running time is spent in one location, that we get an understanding of the layout of the place. That never happens. We never get to understand how parts of the precinct are related to each other, so we never understand the strategy of any of the characters, good or bad, and we never feel any tension because every scene could be in a different time zone for all we know.
That disconnect continues with the action scenes, which feel like they are floating free of the film. Part of the problem is that we just don’t care about what’s going on, part of it is the insane sounds the guns make, but most of it is sheer incompetent direction and editing. It’s almost like the film is endeavoring to keep us as far from the action as possible, making it so that we either can’t tell what’s going on or can’t figure out why.
There is one thing that I will grant the movie – it does have one completely ballsy kill that I didn’t see coming. Too bad it’s another boring head shot – people get shot dead center of the forehead with mechanical precision in this film, and since some of the shots look CGI, that makes some sense.
Never bad enough to offend or really elicit laughter, Assault on Precinct 13 is the quintessential January film – a nothing picture with nothing to say and no interesting way to say it. Boring and tepid, it’s something best forgotten about. Which you will do within an hour of seeing it.
5.0 out of 10