Back there in 1976, two years before unleashing Halloween on an unsuspecting world, John Carpenter established his bad-ass street cred with the low-budget Assault on Precinct 13. A tip of the hat to Rio Bravo, the movie worked minimalist wonders with its stark, no-nonsense premise of cops and criminals banding together to hold off a gang siege. The new remake is okay for what it is, but it’s the work of people trying a little too consciously to be Carpenter-esque — most of the film is painted in varying tones of gun-metal blue, for instance, just like an early Carpenter flick. Still, it’s not a work of sacrilege, either, especially considering that Carpenter’s original — reportedly not among his favorites (like many directors looking back on early work, he can only see the rookie stumbles) — was itself a loose remake of Howard Hawks’ 1959 Western, and Carpenter himself sort of remade it as the atrocious Ghosts of Mars.
Ethan Hawke, as cadaverous as ever (get the man a sandwich), leads the new cast as tormented Detroit desk cop Jake Roenick, once a hotshot undercover narc before a bust went bad. He’s the one presiding over the soon-to-be-closed Precinct 13 on New Year’s Eve, during a hellacious snowstorm that forces a bus full of convicts to dump its surly cargo into 13’s cells. Along with seasoned Irish cop Jasper (Brian Dennehy, a welcome sight) and hot-to-trot secretary Iris (Drea de Matteo), Jake grudgingly takes in the convicts, including notorious gangster Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne, who must’ve found the weight Hawke lost), who’s the target of corrupt cops (led by a clenched Gabriel Byrne) who want to whack him before he testifies and implicates them.
James DeMonaco’s script is amusingly blunt about its character set-up, but also forgetful; at one point a convict (Ja Rule) actually introduces himself as a Libra, then pegs someone else as an Aries, but then never waxes astrological again. The usefulness of one character, Jake’s shrink Alex Sabian (who implausibly gets stranded at the precinct), is limited to the fact that she’s played by Maria Bello, who along with Drea de Matteo gets some of the typical John Carpenter femaleness (smart, scared but tough) onto the screen. Indeed, a lot of the characters here seem to be written (and acted) in homage to Carpenter, which may explain why, despite the change in premise and location, this Assault never quite feels like its own film. (Carpenter’s tribute to Rio Bravo, on the other hand, declared its own personality loud and clear.) It’s decent imitation J.C., I suppose — an homage twice removed.
Carpenter, I think, would have been more interested in the convicts than in Jake’s crisis of confidence. John Leguizamo, acting like Steve Buscemi channeling the Hitchhiker from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, twitches and rants as the junkie prisoner Beck, and Aisha Hinds has a potentially intriguing role as Anna, a sullen young woman who insists she was wrongly arrested (we never find out if she was or not). Laurence Fishburne, doing a King of New York-meets-Morpheus turn, is so hipster-stoic-cool he’s practically immobile; can this be the same actor who was so memorably unhinged in What’s Love Got to do With It as the manic-sadistic Ike Turner? The movie seems more interested in Jake’s Demerol addiction, or the shrink’s OCD (boy, obsessive-compulsives are really hot these days — see The Aviator, Monk, and Elektra).
I don’t want to spoil the original Assault‘s most famous moment for those of you who haven’t seen it, but suffice it to say that it involved a little girl who wanted vanilla twist. It was Carpenter’s signal to the audience that all bets were off, that there was no shock he would spare if realism called for it. There’s no vanilla-twist girl in Assault ’05, which probably says more about the times than about director Jean-François Richet’s willingness to pull out the stops. Richet, making his English-language debut here, unveiled a film in 1997 called Ma 6-T va crack-er, which one Internet Movie Database reviewer described as “a film showing and encouraging violence and revolt.” That sounds like a film close to Carpenter’s cynical heart, but all Assault encourages is the occasional buzz of adrenaline as most of its tiny cast is decimated. It’s neither graceful nor disgraceful; it just functions and then is over.