Assault on Precinct 13 (January 17/05)
The most memorable aspect of the original Assault on Precinct 13 remains the brutal and unexpected murder of a little girl sporting an ice cream cone, a moment that is - not surprisingly - absent in this version.
Based on John Carpenter's classic 1976 suspense flick, Assault on Precinct 13 stars Ethan Hawke as Jake Roenick - a cop who's still struggling to get over the deaths of two officers that died as a result of his orders. He's spending one last night in his precinct - along with a few other cops - before it's scheduled to be torn down, when a bus full of criminals makes an unexpected appearance due to a vicious snow storm. The problem emerges when a group of masked men make it abundantly clear they're not leaving until crime boss Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne) is dead, for reasons that are divulged midway through the movie. As in the original, the cops are forced to arm the prisoners as a form of self-preservation - a decision that results in more than a few close calls.
Assault on Precinct 13 has been directed by Jean-Francois Richet, a filmmaker whose hyperkinetic style effectively ensures that the film will never be confused with its predecessor. Working from a screenplay by James DeMonaco, Richet doesn't waste any time in getting to the action - often placing his camera right there in the middle of the fray. It's evidently a fashionable thing now to imbue such sequences with jittery cinematography and rapid-fire edits, virtually to the point of incomprehension. And while Richet never quite goes as far as Paul Greengrass did with The Bourne Supremacy, it's hard not to wish an old-school action filmmaker like John Badham or Peter Hyams or even Carpenter himself had been handed the reins.
Exacerbating matters is the fact that essentially the entire film occurs at night, smack-dab in the middle of a snowstorm. More than anything else, the movie is just too dark - literally - often making it impossible to discern what's going on. Richet is clearly going for a Panic Room sort of vibe, but director of photography Robert Gantz is clearly no Darius Khondji (the ceaseless darkness eventually becomes oppressive because of this difference).
Still, the movie remains kind of engaging - mostly due to the efforts of an unexpectedly stellar cast, which also includes Brian Dennehy, Gabriel Byrne, and underrated character actor Matt Craven. Hawke and Fishburne deliver performances that are far better than one might expect from a movie of this sort, with the latter essentially riffing on The Matrix's Morpheus (or maybe he's just become one of those actors who can't help but be cool). DeMonaco's screenplay indiscriminately kills likeable characters, one of the few surprises offered by the film.
Assault on Precinct 13 is sporadically effective but far too incoherent to warrant a full-blown recommendation. Aficionados of violent flicks would be well advised to check it out, though, if only because movies this bloody have become incredibly rare (the film seems to be going for some kind of a record involving characters that get shot in the forehead).