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Assault on Precinct 13 (2005)

by on 2011/12/31

“Complex problems force me to concentrate, neutralizing any feelings I have at a given moment. I hide behind its structure.”

* * *

Assault on Precinct 13 is a remake of John Carpenter’s second feature from 1976, itself a hybrid-successor of Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead (1968). I first saw the original on a VHS tape I found buried in a bargain bin. Although I enjoyed the majority of it, I was soured early on by a child’s murder sequence.

The remake substitutes that provocation with another, an undercover drug deal gone awry. Ethan Hawke (Before Sunrise) portrays Sgt. Jake Roenick. Initially a strung-out skinhead type, the slaughter of his fellows leaves him a burned out desk jockey with an occasional limp and no capacity for decisions.

Supervising the New Year’s Eve closure of a past-its-prime station in Detroit, he’s beset by a series of difficulties which, combined, overwhelm him and his staff. Wintry conditions keep their small group trapped in the precinct. The transfer of a dangerous prisoner makes an emergency stop. A platoon of sharp-shooters surrounds the building, killing anyone braving the storm.

Hell is frozen over, it would seem.

Very nearly a closed-room suspense with blockbuster action trappings, Assault boasts a cool enough cast, but does far too little with them. Hawke is joined by Maria Bello (A History of Violence), Gabriel Byrne (End of Days), Drea de Matteo, Brian Dennehy (First Blood), John Leguizamo (Die Harder), and Ja Rule.

Despite the best efforts of all involved, the players come across a bit stock. Everyone is a shallow cardboard type — a fence, a junkie, and a gang banger — sporting equally trite affectations: third-person self-reference, conspiracy theorist, and unjustly prosecuted innocent.

Far and away, the standout performer is Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix) as criminal mastermind Marion Bishop, the so-called “black Rasputin” who is said to be unstoppable. More impressive are his silences, asserting his power with a glance.

Otherwise, the conventions are legion, split between nonsense and unoriginal. One character demands, without irony, “I wanna know what the funk it is.” The snipers are improbably poor shots, and carry identification. A hero with a handgun trumps an army with SMGs. One villain is stabbed with an icicle, as in Die Harder. A group of comrades turn on themselves in a Mexican standoff as in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Reservoir Dogs, Saving Private Ryan, True Romance, and so many more. A pivotal decision is marked with a Vertigo dolly zoom.

To its credit, however, the movie employs almost as many less cliched trick shots. Roenick, facing away from us, bends down to wash his face, then stands up again, now facing toward us in the mirror. One unbroken zoom sweeps back from him working at his desk, between the bars behind him, through the storm, to a view of an incoming vehicle.

The gimmicks are rarely obvious though. Style takes a back seat to realism. Unfortunately, that approach has its issues too. The handheld camera here is sometimes the worst example of its type. Sonically, the realism results in an uninvolving experience, where the shelling of the precinct sounds like distant chirruping, not the enveloping firefight we expect in a modern production.

Audio issues do not extend to the score by Graeme Revell, a successful bit of ambience involving nearly subliminal electronics, grinding textures, subtle bass lines, percussive pulses and thumps. In a scene where Roenick sets prisoners free, a scraping effect plays in reverse, as if reinforcing the theme of time being out of joint.

Still, cliches are strange things. We can pile them on, cite and critique them without dispelling their validity. In fact, as much as we pay tribute to originality, we’re quick to knock down novelty and reject a broken formula. How often have franchises — The A-Team, The Brady Bunch, and James Bond, for example — changed their template to their own detriment? At least once too often, I’d suggest.

Assault on Precinct 13 doesn’t have that kind of problem. It’s unabashedly formulaic through-and-through, from beginning to end, a product cobbled together from a grab bag of others’ cliches. Yet it’s also a serviceable action flick with a good cast, good music, and no innocent children being killed. If that’s your idea of a fun New Year’s Eve then, to quote Leguizamo’s character, Beck, “Come on. Come on, man. Come on. Just do the math. Come on.”

And, no, there is no math to be done in Assault on Precinct 13.

* * *

Rated R

109 minutes

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