Film Reviews: Wednesday, January 19, 2005
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Police Siege

Bad cops and dramatic conventions trap the characters in Assault on Precinct 13.

By KRISTIAN LIN

If the title of Assault on Precinct 13 sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because the movie is a remake of a low-budget 1981 thriller by John Carpenter. The original has a somewhat inflated reputation, perhaps owing to the fact that Carpenter had revolutionized the horror genre three years earlier with his Halloween. Entertaining in a disposable sort of way, his ramshackle, low-budget, conventional thriller was about a group of cops and prisoners trapped in a soon-to-be-closed police station by a gang of ridiculously well-armed teen thugs.
The new version has a bigger budget and mainstream Hollywood talent, and though it’s not pretentious enough to be offensive, it’s not good enough to be more than anonymous, either. One main story element is stronger — instead of hoodlums who act like zombies in a zombie movie, the bad guys here are crooked cops formerly in league with a murderous gang leader (Laurence Fishburne) who’s being transported with three other prisoners when a snowstorm forces their bus driver to seek shelter. The cops have to kill the gangster to keep him from ratting them out and kill everyone else in the station to silence them, including the lieutenant in charge (Ethan Hawke), who decides to release and arm the prisoners to help fend off the assault.
The mixed bag of characters inside the station is a set-up as old as the movies themselves. (In fact, you can see a better version of the same story in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, which screens at the Modern this Wednesday.) Why the bad cops resort to such a messy solution isn’t discussed, but this omission is less serious than the presence of hoary clichés like Brian Dennehy as an old cop who’s one day away from retirement — although there’s a twist on that situation that should play better than it does — and the lieutenant being a burn-out case after screwing up a drug sting that got some fellow cops killed. This diagnosis is delivered by a police psychologist (Maria Bello) whose presence in the film is otherwise useless. The attempt at a comic subplot involving two other prisoners (John Leguizamo and Ja Rule) falls painfully flat.
All these flaws might have been smoothed over by a talented director. Instead, this film has Jean-François Richet, a filmmaker known for tackling inner-city subjects in his native France. Transplanted to Hollywood, his visual style is no different from those of any of our homegrown hacks, and his control of pacing and tone isn’t what it should be. There’s little sense of place, too — we’re not sure of the layout of the station where most of the film takes place, and when the movie climaxes by moving the action to a wooded area outside the station, it’s jarring because the director hasn’t established where the woods are in relation to the building. More fluid direction might have made Assault on Precinct 13 into a nice little bagatelle instead of the cold, charmless lump that it is.


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