Appropriately for the remake of a ’70s cult-fave action-thriller, “Assault on Precinct 13” comes off as a purposefully retro slam-bang melodrama with an old-school approach to kicking ass, drawing blood and taking lives. In an era when similar genre pics increasingly resemble videogames, musicvideos or glossy commercials, the blunt, brawny simplicity of helmer Jean-Francois Richet’s storytelling style seems positively novel, and might inspire the begrudging respect of crix while engaging target urban audiences. Expect above average B.O. and long-term ancillary visibility.
New “Assault on Precinct 13” is an updated retread of the well-regarded and influential 1976 low-budgeter directed, written and scored by pre-“Halloween” John Carpenter. Original recycled plot elements from “Rio Bravo” (and, obliquely, other Howard Hawks classics) and stylistic tropes from “Night of the Living Dead” in a hard-charging drama about cops and convicts forced to join forces inside a shuttered police station while besieged by a bloodthirsty street gang.
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Scripter James DeMonaco retains much of the original premise, but recasts the invading hordes as crooked cops bent on silencing a notorious gangster who might testify against them.
Jittery prologue introduces Detroit police sergeant Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke) during an undercover drug-dealing sting that climaxes with fatal consequences for his two partners. Entire sequence is a self-conscious collage of jump cuts, desaturated colors and hand-held lensing, leading auds to expect the show-offy worst.
But Richet, a French-born auteur making his Yank directing debut, quickly shifts gears when narrative jumps ahead eight months to reintroduce Roenick as a guilt-wracked wreck who swills booze and pops pain pills while marking time at a desk job.
New Year’s Eve finds Roenick on duty with vet cop Jasper “Old School” O’Shea (Brian Dennehy) and cheerfully trampy secretary Iris Ferry (Drea de Matteo) at Precinct 13, a gone-to-seed police station scheduled to close the following morning. After enduring yet another session with psychiatrist Alex Sabian (Maria Bello), Roenick settles in for a long, uneventful night.
Thanks to a raging snowstorm, however, a police bus transporting prisoners must stop at Precinct 13. Roenick reluctantly agrees to temporarily incarcerate junkie Beck (John Leguizamo), counterfeit merchandise dealer Smiley (rapper-actor Jeffrey “Ja Rule” Atkins), alleged gang-banger Anna (Aisha Hinds), and, most important, Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), a taciturn gangster who recently killed a treacherous business partner.
Unfortunately, that business partner was an undercover cop, and his partners, led by the implacable Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne), are heavily armed and determined to invade Precinct 13 and extinguish Bishop.
Outnumbered and outgunned, Roenick is forced to arm the prisoners while leading a desperate defense with no electricity and dwindling resources.
Much like Carpenter’s original, Richet’s remake takes a good half-hour to establish the particulars of its high-concept premise. Nothing in the new “Assault,” however, is nearly as shocking as Carpenter’s near-legendary scene in which he blithely broke a cardinal rule of genre — Thou Shalt Not Actually Kill an Endangered Child. But Richet does fine job of building suspense and establishing characters during the early going, laying the groundwork for the protracted siege that grips the audience for the remainder of pic’s running time.
Richet and DeMonaco make relatively few adjustments to modernize the scenario — a throwaway line “explains” why folks inside the police station can’t use cell phones or police radios to summon help — and remain faithful to material’s B-movie roots by springing surprises while doling out death sentences to key characters.
Performances are sturdy and straightforward across the board. Fishburne and Byrne bring effortless authority to their roles, while Hawke hits the right notes as he charts various steps — mocking humor, pained guilt, fearful indecision, steely resolve — in Roenick’s character arc. Among supporting players, de Matteo stands out as a brassy slattern with a weakness for bad boys but impressive inner strength.
Pic benefits greatly from helmer’s no-frills staging and cutting of action set pieces: Assaults and interactions are all the more effective because spatial relationships are cleanly defined. Here and elsewhere, lenser Robert Gantz and editor Bill Pankow make invaluable contributions. Near-continuous snowfall in exterior shots also enhances overall mood of anxious dread.
This meat-and-potatoes dish of moviemaking is sufficiently tasty to satisfy auds hungry for old-fashioned rock-the-house action.