[21 January 2005]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
In the meantime, I got this plan. It’s called “save ass.” And the way it works is this: I slip outta one of these windows and I run like a bastard!
—Wells (Tony Burton), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 didn’t need to be remade, updated, or overhauled. Released in 1976, it featured unknown actors, a desolate South-Central Los Angeles set, sparse dialogue, Carpenter’s grim synthesized score, and low-budget effects that were probably fun to rig, like shattered windows and bloody squibs. Nowadays, it’s mostly remembered as the movie Carpenter made before Halloween, but it was also its own sort of B movie classic, a stripped-down action flick with more on its mind than explosions and shoot-outs.
Among these thoughts and themes are racism, urban decay, post-industrial desperation, morality and honor among thieves, and the menace posed by faceless men with guns. Jean-François Ríchet’s version goes through some of these motions, in ways that make it both more vibrant and less allusive than the original. Starring famous folks like Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, and Drea de Matteo, it offers more explanatory chatter and more costly effects. While none of this makes 2005’s Assault on Precinct 13 a better movie, it does make it a sign of its time, much like the first film spoke to its moment. The new film’s choices are telling: it changes the “sides,” turning the “street gang” who assaults the precinct into a band of corrupt cops looking to cover up their bad history, as this coincides with current expectations concerning failed institutions. It omits the startling murder of a little girl as the touch-off for all the violence, as children with gunshots in their chests are upsetting, after all. And it offers considerably more information as to character backgrounds and motivations, as if not trusting viewers to keep up with nuance or abstraction.
Where Carpenter’s film began with a series of brief introductions to unrelated characters fated to collide for no good reasons during the coming night, the new one begins with a little elucidatory sequence, setting up a sympathetic protagonist, Detroit narcotics cop, Sergeant Jake Roenick (Hawke). He’s on an undercover spot, negotiating with some lowlife, as his two partners watch warily—Robert Gantz’s camera skitters across their gaunt faces and look-we’re-gnarly-junkies bodies, each shot held just barely long enough to tell who’s who (this effective smash-editing by Bill Pankow). Inevitably, the bust goes bad (“Dirty fuckin’ pig!”), the partners die horribly (“That cocksucker shot me!”), and Jake, surveying the damage, erupts in cop anguish as the camera cranes out (“Where the fuck is my back-up!?”).
“Eight months later,” says the screen title, Jake is limping, wearing a uniform, popping pain pills, and looking after the titular precinct, officially shut down. He’s also seeing a system-appointed shrink, Alex (Mari Bello), with whom he alternately argues and flirts (calling her “Mrs. Mindfuck” just before he guesses that she wants to sleep with him). You can see how he’d be confused: it’s a snowy New Year’s Eve, and the doc has come by for a session dressed in her party gear. Her unprofessionalism is not really explained when the weather forces her to return to the station and the evening turns ugly. She reveals—by completely unhelpful and nervous-making behavior—that she has OCD, counting her way through one catastrophe after another.
These catastrophes have to do with the film’s major plot point, that the weather makes the precinct an overnight way-station for a truck full of criminals, being transported from one prison to another. This grumpy crew—including small-time pilferer (Ja Rule), who likes to refer to himself in the third person (“That’s not Smiley’s essence”); a junkie named Beck (John Leguizamo); and gangsta-girl Anna (impressive Aisha Hinds, who also recently made the most of her two-minute guest appearance on Medium)—is apparently assembled to showcase the utter smoothness of the man who literally towers over them. Purple-jacketed Marion Bishop (Fishburne, who pretty much outclasses this film in every way—where is his next Deep Cover?) is a drug kingpin and cop killer too, this last graphically demonstrated in the film’s early minutes, as he pierces one bully’s thick neck, and in church, no less.
Bishop has his reasons for such nasty business, namely, Thick Neck and his fellow cop/boss, Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne), are trying to cheat him out of drug money. Since Bishop is caught outside the church, he’s soon on his way to court, which is where the snowy New Year’s Eve comes in. Duvall comes by the precinct with his bad-cop crew to kill his former associate before he has a chance to implicate the whole lot of them. All this info means that, as this Assault begins, you know a whole lot more about the principals—cop and killer—than in Carpenter’s lean and mean saga. Also fleshier this time are the clichéd supporting figures, from the much-mascara-ed secretary Iris (de Matteo) to veteran cop Jasper (Brian Dennehy). He reveals that he’s about to retire that very night (this does not bode well) and she’s quite rightly, if briefly, enthralled by Bishop’s treatise on Eros and Thanatos.
For a movie set in a single location, at night, in the snow, the movie sustains a remarkable energy, partly a function of the swooping and circling camera, and partly because scenes keep cutting from inside to outside (if you’ve cast Byrne, aptly menacing when Duvall informs one of his goons that they will kill everyone, “without pause, without regard,” you’ve got to use him. But this undoes the tension that in 1976 was premised on the assailants’ shadowy facelessness. Now everyone knows who they are, and moreover, that they have their night goggles and fancy explosives. Yeah, like every other SWAT team in the movies.
What still works, though, is the edgy distrust-into-respect that develops between Bishop and Jake. On first look, the first film’s innovative race mix (the criminal, Wilson [Darwin Joston], was white, paired with the black cop, Bishop [Austin Stoker]), is here inverted as if to reinforce stereotypes. But the clash of seething, seeming opposites who really do see eye to eye, as embodied by Hawke and Fishburne, is pretty near irresistible.