Assault on Precinct 13


USA/France, 2005. Rated R. 109 minutes.

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, John Leguizamo, Maria Bello, Brian Dennehy, Gabriel Byrne, Drea de Matteo, Jeffrey ‘Ja Rule' Atkins, Matt Craven, Aisha Hinds, Currie Graham
Writers: James DeMonaco, based on the screenplay by John Carpenter
Original Music: Graeme Revell
Cinematography: Robert Gantz
Producers: Pascal Caucheteux, Stephane Sperry, Jeffrey Silver
Director: Jean-François Richet


Grade: B- Review by Carlo Cavagna

Director Jean-François Richet (All About Love) and screenwriter James DeMonaco (The Negotiator) have examined the human condition, and they have come up with one fundamental truth. It's fun to watch people shoot each other.

Rom-com lovers and enlightened, kill-your-television types will likely disagree, and rightly wonder what's so entertaining about men killing each other. There is no defensible answer. It just is. Better to get this fix satisfied at the movie theater than elsewhere. Assault on Precinct 13 does just that.

Assault on Precinct 13 picks up where Training Day left off, with Ethan Hawke now an experienced undercover narc named Jake Roenick. A tense drug buy (apparently lacking in outside police surveillance) that goes wrong provides character background. The movie skips forward in time, with Jake now a haunted desk sergeant running a precinct whose doors are about to close. It's New Years Eve, the precinct's official last day, and all phone calls are already diverted elsewhere. Only a skeleton staff of three remains as a massive snowstorm approaches and shuts down the city.

The point is, despite being located in the middle of Detroit, Precinct 13 is isolated. Really isolated. Antarctic research post in The Thing isolated.

Laurence Fishburne and Ethan Hawke
Laurence Fishburne (standing) and Ethan Hawke contemplate their difficult situation in Assault on Precinct 13.

Enter Laurence Fishburne, still over-enunciating à la Morpheus and speechifying about faith. Along with a few petty criminals, his crime lord Marion Bishop winds up in a Precinct 13 holding cell when the storm forces a prison transfer bus to divert there. Close on his heels are the Bad Cops—Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne) and his Organized Crime and Racketeering Squad, which is highly organized, most definitely criminal, and certainly racketeering. They want Bishop dead so he can't name names.

Wasting no time, the script deftly delineates each off-the-rack action-movie character. You've got your cannon fodder—the two cops escorting the busload of prisoners. You've got your lordly crime boss. You've got your emotionally damaged cop. You've got your smart-aleck secretary with a thing for bad boys (Drea de Matteo of HBO's The Sopranos). You've got your no-nonsense therapist (Maria Bello of The Cooler). You've got your motor-mouthed junkie (John Leguizamo of Moulin Rouge!). You've got your hustler (rap star Ja Rule). You've got your gangbanger (Aisha Hinds of TV's The Shield). And, of course, you've got your senior cop about to retire (two-time Tony Award Winner Brian Dennehy). You gotta have your senior cop about to retire. It's, like, some kind of guild rule.

An oddball cast of characters trapped together, forced to set aside personal animosities to collaborate against a common, implausibly extreme threat—if the setup seems reminiscent of a John Carpenter movie (think Ghosts of Mars and The Thing), that's because it is. Assault on Precinct 13 is a remake of Carpenter's 1976 film of the same name, his second feature. Writer James DeMonaco and director Jean-François Richet (with full support from Carpenter, who consulted on the project) have replaced the L.A. street gang with corrupt cops and devised an unconvincing explanation for why, in this age of mobile phones, no one in the precinct can call for help. Because the cops are jamming all the frequencies, that's why.

The sun sets on the precinct house, by now obviously built on a soundstage. Duvall turns to his second in command (NYPD Blue's Currie Graham) and soulfully expresses regret for all the lives they are about to destroy. Inside, Jake arms the prisoners and negotiates a volatile truce with Morpheus Bishop. “Our shit's on pause,” agrees Morpheus Bishop. All the other shit hits the fan.

Assault on Precinct 13 delivers the action movie goods largely for two reasons. One is its adroit pacing—allowing time for character interaction and development, but always using it to stoke the suspense and move forward. (Think James Cameron's character development in Aliens.) The second is that Richet has somehow recruited a cast of extremely capable actors, none of whom (except maybe Fishburne) phone in their performances. By the end the whole affair does seem hopelessly fake, including the snow, but hey—this is John Carpenter material. If you're into that, great. If not, proceed at your own risk.

Review © January 2005 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2005 Rogue Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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