Assault on Precinct 13 (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

What is the world coming to when the film community is remaking John Carpenter movies? Admittedly, Assault on Precinct 13 isn't the best example of Carpenter's expert craftsmanship, but it was the picture that got him noticed, and that notice enabled him to subsequently film Halloween, Escape from New York, and a chilling re-make of The Thing. Nevertheless, in part because of the non-existent budget Carpenter was working with and in part because the original was kind of cheesy, there was room for improvement. The 2005 edition of the film takes advantage of that gap, and the result is an engaging action thriller. The new Assault on Precinct 13 takes Carpenter's idea (which was, in turn, adapted from the 1959 Western, Rio Bravo) and re-imagines it for the 2000s. The result boasts better acting, slicker direction, and less laughable dialogue, all without a noticeable reduction in tension and suspense. Although fans of the original will probably view this statement as heresy, I will admit to liking the 2005 movie better than its 1976 ancestor.

There are some places where you don't want to be trapped, and Detroit's 13th Precinct on New Year's Eve is one of them. Initially, there are only four people there - a group too thin to be labeled as a "skeleton crew." The precinct only has a few hours of life left. At midnight, it's due to be closed down to make way for the spiffy new 21st. Outside, a major snowstorm rages. Inside, Sgt. Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke); his retiring buddy, Jasper O'Shea (Brian Dennehy); the precinct's horny secretary, Iris (Drea de Matteo); and Jake's shrink, Dr. Alex Sabian (Maria Bello), are preparing to watch Dick Clark ring in 2005. (This film apparently takes place in an alternate universe; Regis Philbin is nowhere in sight.)

Enter Bishop (Laurence Fishburn), a dreaded gangster/drug lord, who happens to be in police custody on his way to prison when the storm forces the convict bus to make an emergency stop at the 13th. Bishop and three other prisoners - Beck (John Leguizamo), Anna (Aisha Hinds), and Smiley (Ja Rule) - are locked in cells to await the coming of dawn and the arrival of a police force to take them to their final destination. But it's going to be a long night. A group of heavily armed men surround the 13th Precinct, demanding the release of Bishop. When Jake, gripped by an unexpected impulse of justice and righteousness, refuses, the assault begins. And it's a good bet that most of the eight within the precinct will not see the new year's first dawn.

Assault on Precinct 13 is not a masterpiece of character development, but it does enough in that area to at least allow us to care about some of the men and women populating the film. Actually, in many cases, that sympathy comes more because of solid performances than as the result of a well-written script. This is, after all, an action/adventure movie. The objective is to get the testosterone pumping. Still, I experienced a pang of sadness when one character I liked perished under unfortunate circumstances.

Laurence Fishburne walks around radiating as much cool as he did in The Matrix. Like Samuel L. Jackson, he has the capacity to command our attention by simply walking across the screen. In fact, in this movie, he doesn't do a lot more, but he still steals every scene in which he appears. He is ably aided by the likes of Maria Bello (who, since Coyote Ugly, has been assembling a nice resume), Drea de Matteo (acting like Adrianna, back from the dead), and Ja Rule. John Leguizamo is a constant irritant. If he had been in more scenes, I might have been forced to hurl something at the screen. Ethan Hawke is curiously low-key. It's easy to forget that he's in the movie (not to mention that he's supposed to be the hero). Brian Dennehy is in his element playing the crusty veteran, and Gabriel Byrne gets to play the bad guy with something that resembles a conscience.

After about 30 minutes of set-up, Assault on Precinct 13 shifts into overdrive, giving us more than an hour of entertainment as the assailants try increasingly lethal methods to get into the building. Considering the arsenal they have at their fingertips, it's a little surprising that they aren't more successful, but that would make for a shorter, less satisfying movie. I would have appreciated a little more interplay between the various characters trapped inside, but that would have gotten in the way of the gunplay and occasional one-liners. For what it is, Assault on Precinct 13 delivers. It's not great art, but, for B-movie fans and those looking for a mid-winter jolt of energy, it's good fun.

(By the way, I don't know if the choice of a Dean Martin song on the soundtrack is a deliberate nod to Rio Bravo, which features Martin alongside John Wayne and Rickie Nelson, or whether it is a coincidence. Either way, it makes for a nice connection between the films, even though little more than the general premise of Rio Bravo remains.)

Assault on Precinct 13 (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2005-01-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1