It’s a scenario that’s practically meant for high melodrama: a group of police officers and criminals stuck in a claustrophobic police building have to defend themselves from a mysterious outside force that contains a lot more firepower than they do. Back in the 70s, the original Assault on Precinct 13 caused quite the hubbub as it was written and directed by genre newcomer John Carpenter going through the “B-Movie” motions while also inserting different thematic ideas – from racism to Vietnam-level war allegories stemming from the unknown enemy’s relentless attacks even in the face of countless casualties. Carpenter wasn’t interested in the reason why the attackers wanted to kill everyone inside the abandoned precinct building, choosing to focus on the drama inside. The relationships between the criminals and their overseers, filled with much distrust and anxiety, both weakened and strengthened their resolve in attempting to survive this massacre.
Most of those themes are intact in Jean-Fracois Richet’s 2005 remake. Working off James DeMonaco’s adaptation of the original work, Richet keeps the set up of the story largely the same, adds a bit of slick Euro flavoring to the visuals (courtesy of cinematographer Robert Gantz) and casts a few recognizable faces namely Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne and Maria Bello. The film opens with a great monologue-type scene by Hawke as an undercover cop acting like a druggie. It’s actually a great acting moment and automatically entrances the audience. It’s another reminder of how good an actor Hawke is and he becomes the film’s biggest asset.
The one misstep of the film is the screenplay’s insistence to put a face, name and purpose to the villains. Led by a scenery-chewing Gabriel Byrne, they are revealed to be police officers themselves. While this provides a welcome statement about corruption and politics that the nation’s crime-fighters are frequently plagued by, I still prefer Carpenter’s approach. In Carpenter’s film we know as much about the enemy as the people trapped in the building do and the new film sacrifices that to send a message.
Still, it’s the characters that matter and they are what keeps us entertained. In that regard, the remake is a winner. In addition to the aforementioned Hawke, there’s Fishburne doing the best “mysterious and all-knowing” act that he’s known for. Bello is a much stronger female character then any in the original, and we even get some much-needed humor from John Leguizamo and Ja Rule as two of the criminals.
Overall I do recommend this new version of Assault on Precinct 13 due to the strong performances and the suspense factor. While Carpenter’s film retains its originality and heightened sense of dread and fear of the unknown, this new version offers enough thrills to satisfy most any film-goer. This can be a great watch with a big group of people.