Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Assault on Precinct 13 (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on May 18, 2005

Directed by Jean-Francois Richet/screenplay by James DeMonaco, based on the film written by John Carpenter/starring Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, John Leguizamo, Maria Bello, Drea DeMatteo, Gabriel Byrne/Universal Home Video

A police station on the verge of closing down is attacked by rogue cops.

This is, of course, the recent remake of the 1976 John Carpenter cult classic. I really wanted to review this when it came out in theaters this past January, but it came and went so quickly that I didn’t get a chance. I finally caught up with it a couple of weeks after it came out – at the local second-run theater. I thought it was OK but I wasn’t extremely impressed with it, and I wondered why they thought the movie needed to be remade in the first place.

Then I watched the original on DVD not long after to compare the two, and I was a little surprised. As a Carpenter fan, I’ve seen the original several times over the years, and I always found it very suspenseful and intense. This time, I was amazed at how slow it was. It seemed like it took forever for ANYTHING to happen! Even Carpenter says on the commentary that he wishes he’d picked up the pace a little bit.

What the hell was going on here? Had I just seen it too many times? Was I remembering it differently than it actually was? Or is the remake (gulp) actually better than the original? It sounds like blasphemy, but…is it possible?

Well, now the remake is out on DVD, and after taking another look at it, I still don’t think it’s as good as the original, even if the original isn’t as good as I thought it was. But I actually liked the remake better the second time around. Separated from any unrealistic expectations and comparisons to Carpenter’s film, it holds up pretty well as a gritty, old-fashioned action thriller. Even though I’d just seen the film four months earlier and knew what was going to happen at every point, I still found it involving and tense. A lot of movies just don’t play that well on a second viewing – this one got better.

The story is basically the same in both films, but the details are different. At first I thought a lot of these changes seemed arbitrary, but at the very least they help keep things interesting. Where the original dealt with a black cop and a white criminal teaming up against a street gang laying siege to the old police station, this time it’s a white cop (Hawke) and a black criminal (Fishburne) teaming up against a group of crooked cops laying siege to the old police station. These variations don’t seem that huge at first, but they add up to make subtle differences that clearly separate the movie from its predecessor. It may be the same movie in a lot of ways, but it doesn’t feel quite the same.

The corrupt cops (led by Byrne) are after Fishburne because they’re in league with the criminal organization he runs, and he’s about to testify against them. What exactly the cops do for him isn’t explicitly stated – the movie just takes the idea of cops working with criminals for granted, and of course that becomes a recurring theme. We’re told repeatedly that Fishburne’s Marion Bishop is a “cop killer” (apparently the worst of all possible criminals, at least as far as this movie is concerned), whereas Hawke’s Jake Roenick is just barely a cop, purposely sidelining himself to an unsatisfying desk job after a field assignment that went horribly wrong. Where Bishop is comfortable skating around the edges of morality, Roenick has lost his sense of moral superiority even if his righteous instincts are still there. Each of them is willing to work with the other to achieve the goal of survival, because the circumstances override their personal codes.

What’s interesting is that the two characters never really become friends in that typical Hollywood “buddy-cop” way. At most, each gains a grudging respect for the other, while still acknowledging their respective places in the social structure. Bishop is very much what he is, a career criminal and a cold-blooded killer, makes no apologies for it and no one expects him to change. Roenick is still very much the upstanding policeman, albeit a damaged one, and steps up to “play the hero” when it’s called for. Their normal socially acceptable cop/criminal interaction is set aside, or put “on pause” because of the extreme conditions they’re under, but at no point does either of them abandon their true nature.

The other characters provide an interesting study in behavior under pressure. The animosity between the other cops and criminals stuck in the station is palpable, and of course there’s the requisite “old-timer” cop (Brian Dennehy) who simply can’t trust or hide his disgust for the “scumbags” despite the fact that each side needs the other to survive the night. A couple of the criminals naturally see the siege as an opportunity to escape, in spite of the odds against success. The least composed is Jake’s “civilian” police therapist Alex (Bello), who is revealed to have some psychological issues and odd quirks of her own.

The remarkable thing about the movie is that each of the characters comes off as an individual human being, regardless of whether they’re considered “good” or “bad” people. At first glance, they all may seem like stereotypes from a bad TV cop show, but the writing and acting is smart enough that they avoid easy categorization, and we wind up genuinely concerned for their survival. Leguizamo’s fast-talking shtick has been annoying in other films, but here his paranoid, put-upon drug addict plays like a fully developed character that amounts to more than comic relief. The same goes for rapper Ja Rule, who managed to transcend my natural aversion to rappers acting in movies by actually playing a character, and doing it pretty well. On the other side of the coin, DeMatteo’s secretary who “fucks bad boys” and dresses like a five-dollar hooker could have been played for an easy, vulgar laugh but isn’t, due mainly to the humanity she invests in the performance. And Bello remains sympathetic despite becoming increasingly unhinged (in all fairness, she’s not used to people trying to kill her). These people get under your skin, and as the movie goes along, it becomes harder and harder to simply write them off.

That’s why it’s a bit disappointing when the last half-hour or so turns into a game of “let’s see how many characters we can kill off”, although admittedly, this didn’t bother me as much the second time as it did the first. Even the villain of the piece, veteran cop Marcus Duvall (Byrne) comes off as a recognizable human being, if not a particularly likable one. He knows he’s doing the wrong thing, but he’s only doing it because he feels he has to. You get the feeling that he’d much rather be at home, watching TV on the couch with a beer in his hand. But if he lets Bishop live to testify, he and his fellow cops all go to prison. Not much of a choice there.

So what does the remake do that the original didn’t? Well, there’s much more of a sense of a larger conspiracy going on here, which I liked. In the original, the station is attacked by a street gang trying to get to someone inside, and the prisoners just happened to be there at the time, which feels kind of random. Here, our bad guys know that the station is closing down, which is exactly why they derail the prison bus there to get to Bishop. This eliminates the need for the entire child-killing ‘70’s-gang subplot, as well as the infamous ice-cream truck scene (which I would’ve liked to see them take a shot at, or at least something equally shocking). It narrows the focus down to what’s happening in and around the station house (except for a pre-credits sequence that details Jake’s in-the-line-of-duty mishap, which I don’t think was really needed). The bleak, snowy Detroit setting also provides a stark contrast to the original’s deceptively sunny (at first) California backdrop.

Where the remake mirrors the original is in its lack of political correctness, or even political incorrectness for that matter. Even though the races of the two main characters were switched, there’s pretty much no discussion of it whatsoever. Given that this is a Hollywood movie, I was expecting a big, preachy speech at some point about how we’re all human beings and how there are good and bad people in every race, just to offset the potentially “racist” casting decisions. Thankfully, such a speech is never delivered, and it doesn’t need to be. The movie shows us that message, simply by painting each character as an individual. Where the original showed us that a black man could be a cop and a hero, the remake shows us that a man can be a criminal and a human being. Because the movie never apologizes for who Bishop is or tries to explain him away as a victim, he never has to “redeem himself”. It simply isn’t necessary. He’s a guy who does bad things for a reason and good things for a reason, and is played by a black actor. That’s it. And no one seems to be bothered by that. In a weird way, I think that’s progress.

That’s just the kind of no-bullshit, old-school, lean and mean action flick this is. It feels like a throwback, not to Carpenter’s original but to directors like Walter Hill and J. Lee Thompson. There’s no CGI (that I’m aware of anyway), no over-the-top stunts, no unbelievable gravity-defying heroics. Precinct 13, like the original (which itself was inspired by Howard Hawks’ western Rio Bravo, but you probably knew that already), is down-to-earth, meat-and-potatoes, guns-and-guns stuff. That’s probably exactly why it bombed in theaters, and why it plays so well on DVD. But it’s also smarter than most movies of its type, and I think people who give it a second look on disc (or a first) will be pleasantly surprised by that. Not to mention that it kicks ass.

Universal Home Video has put together a decent DVD package for this, including deleted scenes, commentary and several short behind-the-scenes featurettes. My favorite of these was “Armed and Dangerous”, which details how the film’s weapons handler matched the characters’ guns to their personalities. Now that’s old-school, baby!

***   5/18/05

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