A good story, it appears, can work in a variety of incarnations. When John Carpenter made his no-frills actioner “Assault on Precinct 13” back in 1976, it was basically an updating of Howard Hawks’ 1959 western “Rio Bravo,” about a sheriff (John Wayne) who held off an attack on his jail with the help of unlikely allies. Carpenter moved the story to the present: an isolated police station is assaulted by a vicious street gang, and the cops arm the prisoners to fight alongside them. It was a tense, violent nail-biter made without stars and nearly without budget, but it worked incredibly well. Now it’s been redone as a well-financed studio release with a stellar cast, and astonishingly enough the old chestnut is still a grabber. This James DeMonaco/Jean-Francois Richet version adds character background and tweaks the subplots, but it’s fundamentally true to the old movie; and though it obviously has a lot more money behind it, it hasn’t been turned into a modern special-effects extravaganza, earning its suspense the old-fashioned way, by pacing and atmosphere rather than cheap thrills. In this case thirteen was a lucky number for audiences three decades ago, and it still is. When, as the credits begins to roll, it’s announced that the movie is “A Why Not Production,” you might silently think that the question about remaking Carpenter’s film should instead be “Why?” But by the end you’ll probably feel that the makers have given a credible answer to either.
Of course, the new picture isn’t simply the lean, spare action machine that Carpenter’s was. It begins, for instance, with a prologue explaining the take-no-chances character of its lead, Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke), the sergeant who’s closing down the outdated precinct on a snowy New Years’s Eve: some time before he was involved in a drug bust gone bad in which his two partners died and he was wounded, and the experience has left him burnt-out and demoralized. This opening sequence, to tell the truth, makes one expect the worst, since it’s shot in the jittery hand-held style, with whiplash edits and washed-out colors, that will put you in mind of so many of the flamboyantly raucous but uninteresting police melodramas of recent years. When the picture moves into the present, though, it settles down into solid, well-crafted storytelling. Roenick’s staff in the largely-decommissioned old office consists of veteran Jasper O’Shea (Brian Dennehy), who–of course–is about to retire, and freewheeling secretary Iris Ferry (Drea de Matteo), and they all expect a quiet last night at the site. Roenick’s shrink Alex Sabian (Maria Bello) shows up for a quick session before heading off to a party, and the two banter before she’s stranded by the snow and the real problems arise.
The trouble occurs when the blizzard requires a stopover at the station of a police bus transporting fur prisoners–a paranoid druggie named Beck (John Leguizamo), a dealer who calls himself Smiley (Jeffrey “Ja Rule” Atkins), an accused gang member named Anna (Aisha Hinds) and, most importantly, crime lord Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), who’s just killed an undercover cop who was part of his operation. After they’re all installed in cells, the building comes under attack from an elite PD unit headed by Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne), intent on killing Bishop before he can reveal their complicity in his crimes. The night turns into a standoff as Roenick relocates his heroic side, going so far as to arm Bishop and the other inmates to defend the place until morning. There are plenty of shifts and twists as things process, and lots of opportunity for brusque conversations, humorous interludes and surprise changes of allegiance, but most of them work nicely within the conventions of the genre. Only the final stalking sequence–which takes place in a night-shrouded, snow-covered forest–takes some real suspending of disbelief. It’s nicely staged and ratchets up the tension well, but even while you’re enjoying it you’re likely to wonder just how these characters managed to get from an inner-Detroit police station to what looks like an isolated woodland just by running a few feet down a sewer tunnel.
That’s only the biggest of the implausibilities inherent in a story like this–the industrial-strength weaponry available to a unit within the Detroit PD is certainly another, as is a quick dismissal of using cell phones to call for help–but you’re willing to let them slide, even if you don’t swallow them, because the picture moves well, cannily directed by Richet in the style of Hawks more than Michael Bay. It also springs surprises from tine to time, especially in terms of the fates of some figures the audience will have come to like. The cast is expert, too. Hawke slips easily into the vulnerable leading-man role, both Fishburne and Byrne smoothly supply their characters’ air of quiet menace, and Dennehy has the disgruntled old man routine down pat. Bello and de Matteo are sharp as the two non-convict women, and though Hinds isn’t offered many opportunities, she makes them count. Even better are Leguizamo, whose exaggerations are entirely appropriate here, and Atkins, who might not yet be much of an actor but shows good comic presence. Technically the movie is strong down the line: Robert Gantz’s cinematography captures the felicities of Paul Denham’s production design and Nigel Churcher’s art direction in almost elegant widescreen images, taking special advantage of the dark shadows and falling snow. Graeme Revell’s score is adequate; the blaring hip-hop over the final crawls might have been dispensed with.
There’s certainly no depth to “Assault on Precinct 13,” but its near-retrograde pleasures prove refreshing in an age of Hollywood overreach. It’s got an old-fashioned sort of punch that puts most bigger action-adventure flicks in the shade.