Universal // 2004 // 109 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // May 23rd, 2005
Unite and fight
Not many people were expecting this, a remake of the old-school genre film from John Carpenter about a handful of cops in a small precinct attempting to repel a horde of criminals. This new version takes the premise and adds some dramatic changes. So was this a worthy remake, original enough to stand on its own, or just another sign of Hollywood fast running out of ideas? Or both?
Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke, Training Day) is a burnt-out young cop who has chained himself to a desk, lording over the decrepit Precinct 13 in Detroit. Following an undercover drug bust that (surprise!) went bad -- and led to the deaths of two fellow officers -- Jake has spent the six months since avoiding any and all kinds of action. Now it's New Year's Eve, and Jake and two other members of Precinct 13, salty old cop Jasper (Brian Dennehy, Romeo + Juliet) and oversexed secretary Iris (Drea De Matteo), are in full revelry mode, preparing for the official shutdown of the old precinct.
But the building has not seen the last of its use. Due to an overwhelming snowstorm, a prisoner transport bus is rerouted to the precinct. On board is a handful of run-of-the-mill criminals and the big fish, Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne, The Matrix), just arrested for killing a cop.
Just as the prisoners settle in for a quiet night out of the elements, some masked men with guns break in and attempt to murder Bishop. It turns out the man has a secret, and what he knows can seriously disrupt the lives of a department full of crooked cops. Suddenly, in order to survive a full-scale attack by armed-to-the-teeth cops, led by the cold, calculating Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne, The Usual Suspects), Jake must form an unsteady alliance with Marion Bishop and draft his prisoners to fight.
A blurb on the back of the disc case proclaims that Assault on Precinct 13 comes courtesy of the producer of Training Day. Truthfully, I didn't need that little nugget of info to realize that. This movie is a hard-ass urban thriller, which strives for gritty realism. The tone and execution are very reminiscent of Training Day. To add to that, Ethan Hawke's character is almost a continuation of the role he played in Training Day; he even has the same name: Jake.
You don't see movies like Assault on Precinct 13 being made anymore. These hard-R action flicks are a dying breed, a point I have lamented many times. Rogue Pictures, which distributed this film, is trying to carry the banner of this once-proud genre -- their most recent offering was Jet Li's best American movie to date, the brutal Unleashed. Now this is a studio I can get behind.
Starting from the edgy and intense opening sequence where Jake and his cohorts try to run the tables on a dealer and it all goes nuts, this film is relentless. There is some setup in the beginning, but it's necessary, as we have to meet all our players in this drama, which is essentially a riff on the Western siege and shoot-out. But once the cops begin the attack, the thing is balls-to-the-wall straight out. What's refreshing about Assault on Precinct 13 is that for every typical Hollywood convention, director Jean-Francois Richet (in his American debut) throws five curve balls. Yes, it's obvious when Iris receives lessons in choking a man that that move will inevitably resurface toward the end of the film, but so much unexpected stuff happens throughout that you won't even mind. Everyone is disposable in this film, thanks to some bold moves from the writers to surprisingly dispatch main characters.
The boldest move, however, is the choice to pit our heroes (and antiheroes) against cops. That is quite audacious, considering the many violent scenes where the attackers are brutally killed (a certain Die Hard II knockoff sequence leaps to mind). But this dramatic choice works, because it makes sense. We understand what Duvall is doing. He's a bad mofo for sure, but there is a foundation of reason beneath his murderous intent.
The meat of the dramatic tension belongs to the interplay between Jake and Marion. Now, this isn't Academy-award quality stuff here, I'll grant you, but for the kind of action movie that this is, the quality of acting and the depth of the characters are refreshing. Fishburne lends a great deal of menace to Marion, and his character doesn't change throughout, as we would normally expect from the Hollywood machine (let's have our antihero learn a valuable lesson!). The metamorphosis angle is played by Hawke, and while it's a mite predictable that this burnt-out cop would rise once again to the level of badass, his arc is believable and satisfying.
Last of all, but the reason why anyone interested in this movie would be drawn to it: the action. It's great. From the moment the siege begins, the action doesn't stop. It's brutal and, best of all, it's realistic, a choice the filmmakers committed themselves to. There are no superhuman acts of awesomeness, no slow-motion fight scenes, no "bullet-time" shootouts. When characters get injured, they don't just walk it off and go twenty rounds with their nemesis. As a result, the violence is that much more compelling.
To sum up, Assault on Precinct 13 is a damn good action movie. Characters are deep and interesting, the premise is believable, and the action kicks ass from here to Tuesday. It should exceed expectations.
Universal has put together a fine little digital treatment. The video quality (the film is presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen) is top-notch. Because of a stylistic choice, the color scheme is very cold and dark, but details remain sharp, and when fire and brimstone eventually hit, the visual effects are that much more effective. Both a Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 mix accompany, and each track is sharp. Surrounds are used very well, and the LFE mix booms. Several featurettes are included, and while none are particularly awe-inspiring, they're not just repackaged marketing crap. "Armed and Dangerous" looks at the gunplay aspect, with interviews with the weapons specialist; "Behind Precinct Walls" details the set design; "Plan of Attack" allows the stunt coordinator to run through his orchestrated action sequences; and "Caught in the Crosshairs" is a general behind-the-scenes featurette first run on HBO (okay, so all of it ain't repackaged crap). Some so-so deleted scenes and a director's commentary track finish things off.
I enjoyed this film thoroughly. Assault on Precinct 13 is an action film that earns its R rating and embraces it. Read: This isn't a bubblegum Vin Diesel run-and-gun flick for the kiddies.
Not guilty. The court finds the defendant -- wait for it -- arresting.
Review content copyright © 2005 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "Armed and Dangerous" Featurette
* "Behind Precinct Walls" Featurette
* "Plan of Attack" Featurette
* "Caught in the Crosshairs" HBO Special
* Deleted Scenes
* Director's Commentary
* Official Site