Movie review: 'Assault on Precinct 13'

EntertainmentMoviesCrime, Law and JusticeCrimeGang ActivityTelevisionGabriel Byrne

3 stars (out of 4)

Movie remakes don't have to be trashy or overblown. "Assault on Precinct 13" - which is about an undermanned, snowbound Detroit police station besieged by rogue cops - takes John Carpenter's 1976 cult classic of the same title and updates it smartly and excitingly.

The premise may be outlandish, the action unrealistic and sometimes silly and the characters formulaic. But the movie rips and roars.

Working with an excellent cast headed by Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne and Gabriel Byrne, the movie's gifted young director, Jean-Francois Richet, shows a surprising affinity for American action films - even though he's a Frenchman making his first U.S. production.

Like many of the best French genre moviemakers since the '60s, though, Richet knows American film style inside out. He also obviously knows Carpenter's original movie: that brilliant, low-budget, no-star indie about cops and convicts trapped in an L.A. precinct station about to close down, forced to form unlikely alliances to fight off the bloodthirsty street gang surrounding them.

That's the general situation Richet and screenwriter James DeMonaco use here, though this "Assault" is more expensive and explosive and the setting has been switched to Detroit during a snowstorm and the villains to corrupt cops.

In the new movie, it's New Year's Eve, the last night for the Precinct 13 station run by a motley skeleton crew headed by desk Sgt. Jake Roenick (Hawke), a frayed-nerve survivor of a tragic police raid. With him are a handful of cops, including genial vet Jasper O'Shea (Brian Dennehy), lusty secretary Iris Ferry (Drea de Matteo) and Jake's antagonistic psychiatrist, Alex Sabian (Maria Bello).

Not much is expected to happen on the station's last night, where a boozy party is under way, but, of course, it does. First, a police van, caught in the snow, discharges its cons at Precinct 13 - including psycho druggie Beck (John Leguizamo), crook Smiley (hip-hopper Jeffrey "Ja Rule" Atkins) and gang-banger Anna (Aisha Hinds) and, most crucially, taciturn and fiercely charismatic gang boss Marion Bishop (Fishburne).

Bishop, the longtime partner of crooked cop Marcus Duvall (Byrne), is now a danger to Duvall's rotten crew and, as soon as the mobster/murderer is ensconced in jail, Duvall begins assaulting Precinct 13 with everything at his disposal: his squad of dirty cops and high-tech weaponry. Because the station's radio and phones are out of order, the besieged cops are on their own. Jake must decide if he trusts his dangerous prisoners enough to enlist them in the battle; as with his '76 counterparts, he has to.

Carpenter's "Assault on Precinct 13" - itself inspired by the great 1959 Howard Hawks-John Wayne-Dean Martin jailhouse western "Rio Bravo" - made do without stars (even future stars) and with minimal production values. That's not a problem with Richet's remake, which has a great cast and lots of technical firepower, along with an engrossing story and lots of genre savvy. Richet and DeMonaco are buffs who respect their sources, both the '76 "Assault" and "Rio Bravo," and they've figured out clever ways to update them.

Using crooked cops as the villains, instead of the original's anonymous zombielike street gang, lends the movie a more contemporary sense of corruption; the ironies of the siege become more intense. And, at the center of the action, Hawke and Fishburne strike the kind of racial/dramatic sparks that Hawke and Denzel Washington ignited in "Training Day."

Fishburne's Bishop is a simmeringly cool killer who keeps us guessing, Hawke a hero trying to find himself. The two make an explosive pair throughout and, around them, Byrne, Dennehy, Leguizamo and the others create pungent archetypes, keeping the action convincing and fiery. The new "Assault on Precinct 13" won't ruffle old fans, and it should also please most audiences bred on the "street westerns" that the original "Assault" pioneered. The French, it seems, can appreciate and do right by Americans - or at least by American movies.

"Assault on Precinct 13"

Directed by Jean-Francois Richet; written by James DeMonaco, based on the film written by John Carpenter; photographed by Robert Gantz; edited by Bill Pankow; production designed by Paul Denham Austerberry; music by Graeme Revell; music supervisor John Houlihan; produced by Pascal Caucheteux, Stephane Sperry, Jeffrey Silver. A Rogue Pictures release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 1:49. MPAA rating: R (for strong violence and language throughout and some drug content).

Jake Roenick - Ethan Hawke
Marion Bishop - Laurence Fishburne
Beck - John Leguizamo
Alex Sabian - Maria Bello
Marcus Duvall - Gabriel Byrne
Jasper "Old School" O'Shea - Brian Dennehy
Smiley - Jeffrey "Ja Rule" Atkins
Iris Ferry - Drea de Matteo

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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EntertainmentMoviesCrime, Law and JusticeCrimeGang ActivityTelevisionGabriel Byrne
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