More noise than signal

Assault on Precinct 13

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com

While the first twelve in the series weren’t all that hot, cult favourite director John Carpenter scored with Assault On Precinct 13. A tension filled little B-movie, but not the sort of thing that you’d ordinarily peg as ripe for a remake. Still in the current climate no film is safe from marauding execs, hence we have what’s worrying referred to as a ‘reimagining’, a term which will be more familiar to our enlightened readers as ‘having approximately nowt to do with the original film apart from the name’. True to form, there’s only a broad thematic relationship between this and the original

Injured in a disastrous undercover drugs bust that leaves two of his team making unscheduled farm purchases, burned out Sargeant Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke) drives the desk of Detroit’s rundown Precinct 13. New Year’s Eve sees a hush descend on the station on it’s last night before decommissioning, with only a skeleton staff of cheery, imaginatively nicknamed veteran Jasper ‘Irish’ O’Shea (Brian Dennehy) and receptionist Iris Ferry (Drea de Matteo) on hand to run down the clock. Things become interesting when a passing magician casts Blizzard on Detroit, forcing a prison bus to pull into the precinct for shelter despite Roenick’s misgivings.

While there’s a few petty crims along for the ride such as Beck (John Leguizamo), a paranoiac still stung out on goofballs and counterfeiter Smiley (Ja Rule), the main attraction is in the shape of legendary criminal badboy Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne). He’s a cop killer. He’s a bad, bad man. He’ll turn out to be the anti-hero of the piece that gives the story a backbone. So far so familiar, although a slight variation comes once the titual assault begins. While it’s certainly bad, bad men taking up sniping vantage points around the building, there no ordinary crims. They’re cops, headed by Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne). Oooh, how exciting!

You can probably fill in the rest of the blanks yourself, Roenick deciding to trust his captives to defend themselves rather than shoot him as they try to survive against poor odds. Conceptually at least, this isn’t straying too far from the source material which may raise alarm bells. After all, why bother watching a carbon copy of an earlier work? The answer comes in relatively fresh faced director Jean-Francois Richet’s decision to focus more on the action of the piece rather than emulate Carpenter’s cloying, tense atmosphere.

This does not, in absolute terms, make it a better film than Carpenter’s original, and if you were expecting a similar experience you will be woefully disappointed. What you get instead is for our money one of the more enjoyable, brainless action flicks seen in this era of low-bodycount, Diet Action puff pieces. If you’ll pardon the blatant DVD cover soundbite attempt, “Assault on Precinct 13 is the film S.W.A.T. wishes it was!!!!!”. That’s not enough exclamation marks, is it? “!!!!!!!”. That’s more like it. Ahem.

It’s actually slightly surprising that this passed with a fifteen rating, given the number of people that end up being shot squarely in the head. While clever editing and a lack of exit wound close ups makes for a slightly sanitised version of events, there’s still the slight matter of pretty much the entire cast getting killed to consider. Anyways, it all hangs together far more tightly than expected. While Byrne’s troops unwisely hold an occasional reprieve to allow for regrouping and largely superfluous character development, it’s never long enough to have to really start thinking about anything before tooth and nail fighting resumes.

This is unquestionably a good thing, because as befits a B-movie actioner the plot is minimal and the characters far from redefining cinematic dramatisation. Fishburne borrows Morpheous’ demeanour and no-nonsense attitude but jettisons the spiritual ramblings to produce a watchable villain slash hero who if nothing else is convincing enough waving assault rifles around. Ethan Hawke is another favourite round these parts and while this doesn’t stretch him much, there’s as good a portrayal of his struggle with guilt and addiction as anyone could hope for from the well trodden character genotype.

The supporting cast is uniformly solid, even Brian Dennehy. Shockeroonie. You may however tire of Smiley’s continual referring to himself in the third person for … whatever purpose that was supposed to serve. There’s some lip service paid to tension, mainly manifesting itself in the occasional outbreak of Mexican standoffs but for the most part this movie is about well handled bursts of action that while hardly realistic do have some vague corollary with police siege tactics.

We’re inclined to be somewhat lenient to this film on the basis that like Welcome to the Jungle, it’s a well executed, admittedly brainless action film that attempts to serve no purpose other than to entertain, and there’s precious few of them these days that haven’t got a comic book licence attached to it. As long as you don’t want or expect a stepwise retread of Carpenter’s work and have the occasional longing for the halcyon age of the big dumb action movie before everything had to have some offensively shallow attempt at a social consciousness grafted onto it there’s a good chance you’ll get a reasonable bang per buck out of Assault on Precinct 13.

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