Critically, it’s always difficult to determine how to handle remakes. If the original was truly brilliant enough to warrant revived attention after the passage of decades, the comparison deck is impossibly stacked against the new version. If the remake is meant to be taken as its own movie, cut off from its cinematic roots (however obvious), it loses points almost automatically for milking a concept that’s already been done. Such a rock-hard place position is never so obvious – or so repeatedly encountered – in the Hollywood industry.
In the case of “Assault on Precinct 13,” the problem isn’t so much that the concept was done before, but was done before that, and again after that. John Carpenter’s 1976 original was itself a remake – though a competent, stylish one – of Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo,” a film whose defend-the-fort theme wasn’t considered groundbreaking even in 1959. For whatever reason, Carpenter himself went on to bring back “Precinct 13” (or, if you prefer, “Rio Bravo”) as 2001’s “Ghosts of Mars.” All this lends a certain degree of redundancy to Jean-Francois Richet’s 2005 update, which takes Carpenter’s film and, in a nod to modern sensibility, throws in such 21st-century amenities as SUVs, Ugg boots and an awkward plot-recapping end credit rap by KRS-ONE.
This time around, the location is switched from the seedy underbelly of 1970s Los Angeles to a stormy New Year’s Eve in Detroit. Mentally demolished by an undercover operation gone horribly awry, rattled cop Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke) is sent to man Precinct 13, a decrepit police station mere hours away from permanent closure. As a result, the place is nearly devoid of equipment and staff; the sub-skeleton crew includes an unchaste secretary (Drea de Matteo), Jake’s employer-assigned therapist (Maria Bello) and a grumpy old-timer (Brian Dennehy) as close to retirement as Precinct 13 itself.
Scant hours before the ball drops, the increasingly heavy snowstorm forces a prison bus containing, among a group of generic thugs, laconic crime lord Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne) to drop its payload at the near-abandoned station. The convicts locked away in Precinct 13’s cells, the shift progresses relatively easily, that is, until a seemingly numberless legion of heavily armed intruders descend upon the old building who, for their own set of reasons, need everyone inside it to die as quickly as possible.
Replacing the 1976 movie’s ragtag multiracial street gang is a Gabriel Byrne-led collection of corrupt cops who fear that Bishop, if he survives the night, will finger them in court and send whatever embezzlement scam it is they’ve got going straight down the drain. Doubtless they needed the extra cash for their weapons alone; where the attackers in the original wore little more than sleeveless T-shirts for protection, Richet’s interpretation arms them to the teeth and beyond. Loaded down with what must be a hundred pounds each of armor and gadgetry, these boys in blue more closely resemble murderous androids from the future. This increases the perceived threat to the “good guys,” though it makes one wonder why they can’t get the job done better.
Desperate times requiring desperate measures, the cops and the crooks must temporarily join forces in order to most effectively battle their mutual adversaries. Sadly, the opportunity these circumstances provide for creative mayhem is all but ignored. To be sure, there are moments of inspiration – a convict brings a confiscated prohibition-era fifty-round Tommy Gun into play, Bishop effectively uses Molotov cocktails as close-combat weapons – though these prove to be only brief bits of innovation between long stretches of standard gunplay.
Despite several points of congruence scattered throughout the film, the new “Assault on Precinct 13” consistently fails to be as engaging as the old “Assault on Precinct 13,” despite the fact that it was clearly produced on at least 30 times the budget. The first film made the evocation of its unique mood seem easy by maintaining its tense, claustrophobic feel the whole way through and setting the action to a driving synthesizer score, both Carpenter trademarks. The second takes a big step toward the generic, and, while it technically contains both music and a certain “feel,” neither are memorable.
Perhaps I come off as a cynical fanboy unable to accept the current trends in action film. Nevertheless, the movie posters of the two existing versions of “Assault on Precinct 13” may say all that needs to be said about the quality (and focus) differentiation between the two films. The original bears an imposing, almost frightening hand-painted image of a gun-wielding menace towering a thousand stories tall over the red Los Angeles skyline. The remake’s poster shows nothing but the grimacing faces of Hawke and Fishburne, as if to say, “But… but… we have stars!”