Watching Assault on Precinct 13, the volatile yet fairly lunkheaded remake of John Carpenter’s so-primitive-it’s-hip 1976 B movie, you may develop a fresh appreciation for how the crackling flow of communications technology — cell phones and PCs, the nifty interconnectivity of the whole wired (and wireless) world — is now intrinsic to the flow of movies themselves. I grew highly attuned to that flow only because Assault on Precinct 13 so sorely, and implausibly, lacks it.
In Detroit on New Year’s Eve, as snow blankets the night in gushy thick layers, a bus carrying a group of prisoners is forced by the blizzard to lay over at a crumbly police station that’s on the verge of being shuttered. Just a few cops are on duty, notably Sgt. Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke), an injured undercover officer whose knee wound has turned him into a self-medicating desk jockey. As the prisoners are placed in the precinct’s holding cell, it appears to be a routine night. That is, until the station comes under attack by a squad of rogue cops in heavy combat gear who are out to kill Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), a natty gang kingpin who was part of the bus convoy, and to knock off everyone else in the building for good measure. There is much frantic barricading of doors and windows, much raucous machine-gun fire and shattered glass. Only Jake, the cop with a criminal’s cunning, can save the night by getting his cohorts and his prisoners to fight together.
The original Assault, which is fondly remembered for its great bare-bones synth score (Dun dun-dun DUH duhhhh! Dun dun-dun DUH duhhhh!), was basically Rio Bravo crossed with Night of the Living Dead. In Carpenter’s film, the precinct’s phone lines get shut down 12 hours ahead of schedule, and that — in the ’70s, at least — was enough to cut the place off from the outside world. Jean-François Ríchet, the director of the new Assault, is working from a script, by James DeMonaco, that creates a handful of zingy one-note lowlifes but that hasn’t updated the isolated-precinct premise in a timely or thoughtful way. In this version, no one is able to muster a cellphone signal, but all I could think was, Isn’t there a computer in the house? With e-mail? Or at least a fax machine? Wouldn’t there be some way on God’s digital earth to signal for help?
The clatter of machine guns turns the area into a deafening war zone (in Carpenter’s film, the L.A. youth-gang shooters used silencers, then a relatively novel device for movie assassins), yet we’re supposed to think that because the building lies on the outskirts of downtown Detroit, it’s as remote as a fort in Siberia. There will, I suppose, be those who embrace the borderline ludicrousness of Assault on Precinct 13 as an aspect of its chintzy cool, but even a B movie needs to be rooted in a certain credibility — a nexus of circumstance, hardware, and logistics that forces, at every moment, one course of action over another. Assault on Precinct 13, for all its ballistic zam-pow, lacks the entertaining tension of a movie like The Negotiator (also written by DeMonaco) because it’s hard to believe a minute of it.
Yet parts of the picture are fun anyway. Hawke, grinning like a madman, has a hopped-up addict’s craziness in the opening scenes, when he’s working the drug deal that gets him wounded. He’s far more convincing as a guy who knows his way around a gun than he was in Training Day, though his initial pretending-to-be-high intensity is so arresting that I missed it in the rest of the film. Fishburne, conjuring the suave shell of his Matrix persona, could do these sorts of granite-faced ominous stares in his sleep (and probably does), though he’s great at it. He looks at Beck (John Leguizamo), the matted-hair skank of a junkie in the next cell, as if he were a gnat he’d like to crush — and given Leguizamo’s penchant for mush-mouthed overacting, you may share the sentiment. The one ingeniously staged scene is a seven-person Mexican standoff sparked when Jasper (Brian Dennehy), the Lovable Old Irish Cop, squares off with Jake over whether the crooks should be given guns.
After that, the film turns basic, to put it mildly. A few more of the characters get knocked off than you were expecting, and more brutally, too. Yet the dramatic pivot, which is Jake’s refusal to hand Marion over to his enemies, would have had more punch if it sprung from a twinge of moral compulsion — that is, if Jake’s own survival didn’t depend on it from the outset. That’s what Carpenter’s Assault had: an allegiance between cop and criminal as stubborn as it was corny. Thirty years later, the romanticization of the underworld is now all too automatic. In the new Assault, you never feel as if those who indulge in it have their honor to lose.