Laura CliffordIt’s New Year’s Eve and Detroit Police Sergeant Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke) is the man in charge on the last night of his station house as a going law enforcement concern. He and his skeleton crew of retiring cop Jasper O’Shea (Brian Dennehy) and secretary Iris Ferry (Drea de Matteo) begin celebrating as a snowstorm cripples the city, forcing a shipment of prison inmates to be diverted to the station’s empty holding cells. One of the prisoners is the notorious drug lord Marcus Bishop (Laurence Fishburne) and his presence sparks an “Assault on Precinct 13.”
In 1976, John Carpenter directed his homage to Howard Hawks’s “Rio Bravo” about a closing police station under siege and pushed a lot of non-PC buttons at the time when he showed a little girl gunned down by a gangster. You don’t get that kind of edginess anymore in this politically correct world but the remake of 'Assault on Precinct 13” does have corrupt cops, a troubled former undercover officer living with the memories of a gone-bad sting operation, a crime lord as the target for the bad cops’ attack…and a New Year’s Eve party.
Everything sets up in the first few minutes of Assault” as we watch Jake’s earlier drug sting go wrong to deadly results. Eight months later, he’s in command of the defunct Precinct 13 and is just waiting for the clock to tick down to midnight. Meanwhile, Marcus Bishop confronts a member of a corrupt police crime unit, kills the man, is caught and, because of the holiday, can’t make bail until the next day. He, along with three other prisoners, are bussed to a prison jail, but, because of the storm, are diverted to Precinct 13 for the night. The bus is closely followed by a mysterious, black SUV.
The set up is quickly and efficiently established as the film’s other players are introduced with drug addict Beck (John Leguizamo) sucking up to crime lord Bishop. Con-man Smiley (Jeffrey ‘Ja Rule’ Atkins) and maybe-innocent Anna (Aisha Hinds) round out the inmates cooling their heals in the holding tank for the night. Then, the proverbial crap hits the fan and the attacks begin. Shocked at the brutal assault, the tiny police force believe that the intruders are gangsters trying to free their boss, Bishop – until the corpse of one of the attackers is found with a police badge. Suddenly, Precinct 13 is isolated and without hope of rescue from the outside. The cops and the inmates must join forces to survive.
There is nothing special in this cowboy and Indian remake of Carpenter’s original film but director Jean-Francois Richet does a dependable job with an updated script by James DeMonaco. He moves his players by the numbers as the story unfolds in near-predictable manner. The craftsmanship before and behind the camera helps to keep the film from being routine by injecting creative energy in what could have been a just OK actioner.
Ethan Hawke is first among equals as the focal character for this drama, Jake Roenick. The young, smart cop took the easy way out after being seriously wounded during his calamitous undercover sting and farmed himself out to run the defunct Precinct 13. He has decision-making issues and is being treated, even on New Year’s Eve, by police department shrink Alex Sabian (Maria Bello). Jake has a back story that Hawke builds upon as he must make life and death decisions, once again, but comes to understand “The Law” and what it really means. Hawks gives convincing dimension to Sergeant Roenick.
The rest of the principle ensemble is well cast, too, with Laurence Fishburne giving an arrogant, menacing and practical turn as gang boss Marcus Bishop. He is smart enough to know that the tiny, outgunned band of cops and prisoners is his only chance to keep from getting capped and does everything he can to cooperate and help. He is also canny of every opportunity to escape the entire conflict. Fishburne gives charismatic presence to the smart, tough crime boss.
Drea de Matteo, once again, uses her sexiness as an integral part of her character, Iris, just as she did in the TV series “The Sopranos” and “Joey.” She is provocative but, as the crisis mounts, capable, too, and strikes back with gun-toting fervor. Brian Dennehy is serviceable as the cop who is hanging up his gun and badge when the precinct shuts down and plays the part of skeptical nay-sayer to Jakes life-and-death decisions. Maria Bello, as the dedicated psychiatrist is sexy, smart and brave, despite her inner fears.
The inmates jailed with Bishop are well presented by John Leguizamo, Ja Rule and Aisha Hinds. Hinds, in particular, looks cool as heck brandishing a vintage Tommy gun against the bad guys. Leguizamo gives a manically energetic spin as a junkie who is cut off from his fix and almost lets his paranoia and mistrust of the cops get the better of him. Gabrielle Byrne, as corrupt crime unit chief Marcus Duvall, is on auto pilot and given little to do but send in his faceless, heavily-armed clowns against the determined Precinct 13 garrison.
Techs, given that much of the action is at night, are crisp and clear and, overall, well shot by lenser Robert Ganz. I have a problem with confused, rapid fire action sequences that were shot too close and edited too fast in a way that seemed to try to duplicate the visceral excitement of the assassin tango scene in “The Bourne Supremacy” without success. Good production design by Paul D. Austerberry makes Precinct 13 a flawed fortress that is only protected by the wits and will of its occupants.
Assault On Precinct 13” is up there with such quality, early 2005 films as “Coach Carter” and the kid-friendly “Racing Stripes” for decent winter blahs movie entertainment. This is a surprise at a time when the studios usually dump their dreck on the poor, film-starved winter movie-goer. I give it a B-.
On a snowy New Years Eve, Sgt. Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke, "Before Sunset") and his administrator Iris (Drea de Matteo, TV's "Joey") are packing away the contents of their old building which is slated for closure before indulging in some hard partying. Just as they and retiring cop Jasper 'Old School' O'Shea (Brian Dennehy, "Stolen Summer") begin to enjoy the evening, however, a prison bus is diverted to their jurisdiction because of the storm. One of the four prisoners, drug lord Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne, "Mystic River"), is a high profile bad guy whose presence brings on an "Assault on Precinct 13."
Screenwriter James DeMonaco ("The Negotiator") updates John Carpenter's 1976 tale (itself a reworking of "Rio Bravo") of L.A. gang wars with a deeply compromised Detroit police department where a largely anonymous corrupt vice squad is pitted against a decent, but now drug addicted cop hiding behind a desk job eight months after losing his colleagues in a bust gone bad. French director Jean-François Richet ("All About Love") delivers a solid genre picture of gritty mayhem and spirited characterizations that can be forgiven a see-through third act 'surprise.'
The film opens with Jake's troubled backstory, then jumps ahead to his flirtatious stonewalling of police psychiatrist Alex Sabian (Maria Bello, "The Cooler"), who is trying to get him to admit to a deep-routed fear of field decision making. Hours later when two cops arrive with the prisoners, Jake informs them in no uncertain terms that they will retain responsibility, but a breach is made in the basement jail that leaves one of the officers dead. Everyone assumes that Bishop's men are attacking in order to spring him until Bishop informs Jake that it is Vice Squad head Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne, "Vanity Fair") who wants him dead before Bishop's testimony reveals the crooked cops he's been in business with. With communications cut off, Jake realizes their only hope is to band together and arm the prisoners, a decision that doesn't sit well with 'Old School.'
DeMonaco gives each character a trait to hang his hat on, then moves them around his chessboard, pairing and repairing temporary allegiances. Richet has cinematographer Robert Gantz ("Mindhunters") use shaky hand held for scenes of confrontation, but stabilizes for closeup character establishment. While Richet's staging of the shootings are grisly to the point of exploitation video games, few of the deaths don't have an emotional impact due to the time spent forming the victims. If only the writer and director had spent more time fleshing out Duvall's cover story for his multi-pronged attack on the old barracks.
Ethan Hawke does a fine job as the jumpy Sergeant who's in self-denial. The initial back story provides a neat contrast of his former cockiness and Hawke is convincing as an undercover dealer. Fishburne maintains a cool practicality throughout, making for an interesting partnership with the less assured Hawke. De Matteo, tarted up as usual in a mini, fishnets and her 'party boots,' provides a pivot point between the two. 'I don't bed criminals, I %&($ bad boys,' Iris tells an admiring cop. Her midnight dousing of a cigarette in Jake's held out cup is an amusing foreshadowing of the trouble that lies ahead. She's also a counterpoint to Alex, who ends up back at the precinct in sequins and heals ostensibly because her car broke. Bello's shrink ends up confronting her own fears and, in the end, the actress has created a very sympathetic character. John Leguizamo ("Empire") provides both comic relief and tension as Beck, a junkie who cottons on to Jake's habit. Ja Rule ("Scary Movie 3") is low level con artist Smiley. Aisha Hinds is the lone female prisoner, protesting her innocence but displaying guts and street smarts. Dennehy and Byrne give the least shadings to their characters, the former an irascible conservative, the latter a dead-eyed terminator.
"Assault on Precinct 13" is a solid B picture sure to be a crowd pleaser.
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