When I had first heard that Assault on Precinct 13 was being remade, I threw a little bit of a tantrum, but then quickly regained my composure. After all, Assault on Precinct 13 was something of a loose remake itself, based his film on the classic John Wayne siege western, Rio Bravo.
Still, I had my reservations, as I personally think the original Assault is one of the most underrated thrillers of the seventies, and think the movie holds up well enough for folks to simply watch the original, instead of a newer, slicker, more polished version of it. Still, if it were even half as entertaining as the original film, I would gratefully eat crow.
So, what were the results?
Well, it’s been a few months since I saw this film in the theater, and I’m still picking feathers from my teeth.
Jake Roenick (Hawke) has been riding a desk at the rundown Detroit precinct 13 since he lead an undercover sting that claimed the lives of two of his fellow officers. Jake, himself, was injured in the operation, but his wounds go deeper than the bullet in his leg, and, while he still complains of nagging pain, it’s only so he can maintain a study supply of the pills he pops to help smooth out the edges. The department shrink, Alex (Bello), thinks Jake needs to get back out on the street and away from this self-imposed exile in precinct 13- and, seeing as how precinct 13 is closing its doors forever at the stroke of midnight on this New Year’s Eve, Alex just may get her wish.
Meanwhile, across town, Detroit crime boss Marion Bishop (Fishburne) is arrested after killing a corrupt police officer in the employ of the city’s “super cop”, Marcus Duvall (Byrne). Bishop and Duvall have been working together for years, and Bishop has enough information on Duvall and his men to make certain that, if he goes down, so do they. Duvall uses his influence to make certain that Bishop be held in prison so that one of their men on the inside can take care of the “problem” before it becomes front page news.
Night falls on Detroit, and a winter storm cripples the city. A bus transporting Bishop and a handful of other prisoners takes a detour to precinct 13, and Jake and his skeleton crew (Jasper, a retiring old-school cop played by Brian Dennehy, and sexpot secretary Iris, played by The Sopranos Drea de Matteo) must hold the prisoners for the night, or at least until the storm clears. However, when Marcus discovers that Bishop is now residing in an isolated, under-staffed, and all-but-forgotten precinct, he decides to take advantage of the situation, calling in his men, and ordering a full on assault on precinct 13.
I can’t tell you how pleasantly surprised I was when I first saw this film earlier this year. I walked out of the theater with a goofy smile of pure cinematic fulfillment and even my wife, who is not a fan of “guns and blammo” cinema, was impressed with how brutal this film was. This is a big Hollywood movie that sports an impressive cast, and Richet isn’t afraid to kill any of them. It’s one of those rare films where you just don’t know who’s going to make it through the night, and that sense of surprise (as well as the uncompromising way in which some of these character’s deaths are depicted) is something that is rare in mainstream motion pictures these days. However, Assault on Precinct 13, despite its budget and marquee names, isn’t really all that mainstream of a film to begin with. Richet lends the film the harsh and gritty tone of a seventies bloodbath, and fuses it with a modern, aggressive visual style that is both intense and disarmingly beautiful to behold. Much of the film is plunged in darkness, with rooms illuminated only by moonlight spilling in through bullet holes. Even the characters are dark, with no real line drawn between the good and the bad, here. With the exception of the rattled Alex, dressed in a red gown and clearly out of her element, both those who are attacking the precinct, and those who are defending it are dressed in black and dark blue. No one is wearing a white hat, here, literally or figuratively. Our “heroes” are a gangster whose killed countless men, and a pill-popping cop who's really only looking to redeem himself in his own eyes. They fight alongside a paranoid junkie (Leguizamo), a racist old-school cop, and a secretary who has a thing for “bad guys”. None of these characters are textbook heroes and heroines, and that is precisely why this movie worked so well for me, because there are very few, if any, textbook heroes and heroines in real life, either.
My only gripe with the new Assault is that we never really get a palpable sense of chemistry between any of these characters. I assume we were meant to see a spark between Alex and Jake, as well as some sort of warrior bond between Bishop and Jake, but all of this is inferred rather than truly realised. Then again, things happen at such a breakneck pace, in such a small amount of time that I guess there really isn’t much of a chance to do much more than nod, wink, or smile.
The DVD from Rogue/Universal features deleted scenes, four featurettes ("Plan of Attack", "Armed & Dangerous", "Behind Precinct Walls", and "The Assault Team") and an HBO behind the scenes look at the making of the film called “Caught in the Crosshairs”.
I really enjoyed this new take on Assault on Precinct 13. I was really impressed with this flick’s down and dirty approach, and, while the original will always have a place in my heart, this film is violent, thrilling, and uncompromising enough to merit its own spot right alongside it.