In “Training Day”, Ethan Hawke was a rookie cop who, when told he had to decide whether to be a wolf or to be a sheep, chose to be the shepherd. Now, in “Assault on Precinct 13”, a semi-remake of the 1976 John Carpenter film, Hawke again plays somebody who deals with both the attacker and the attacked. He plays Jake Roenick, a Detroit desk sergeant who took refuge in these functions after an undercover sting operation he headed eight months before turned deadly for two of his colleagues.
A major snowstorm is raging as the film begins but on this New Year’s Eve, the mood is celebratory inside Precinct 13, which is next to a forest whose density will vary depending on the needs of the plot. Inside the building, which is to be shut down, we also meet a veteran cop who unexpectedly announces he’ll soon retire, a flirty secretary who thinks about sex all the time (Drea de Matteo) and, a bit later on, a psychologist named Alex played by the stunning Maria Bello.
They think it will be a quiet night, but a van taking criminals to jail is rerouted to their precinct because of the hazardous driving conditions. This bunch of bad apples is of course a motley crew, consisting namely of counterfeiter Smiley (Ja Rule), who talks in the third person, junkie Beck (John Leguizamo), who can’t shut up and keeps blaming the System, and crime kingpin Marion Bishop. The latter’s ruthless and quiet authority is so well embodied by Laurence Fishburne it’s a wonder the filmmakers left in extraneous exposition like mentioning he’s “notorious for his brutal execution methods”. But this is just the beginning: they’re soon besieged by corrupt cops with the deadliest of intentions, some of them so heavily armed that I wondered if I hadn’t walked in on a sneak peek of Halo: The Movie. I feel it is best for the enjoyment of those who’ll take a chance on the film to leave the plot description at that.
There are excellent performances from Fishburne, Hawke and Bello, but I wish Frenchman director Jean-François Richet and screenwriter James DeMonaco would be equally praiseworthy. In the tense environment where this film takes place, it’s a good thing to feel like there’s always the potential of something happening just beyond the frame, within some boundaries of realism. But at least three times, a character enters the picture so suddenly that any wider of a shot would clearly reveal how unlikely it would be for things to turn out that way. The failed sting operation and the initial precinct attack also show Richet going overboard with the quick cutting and dizzying camera moves.
DeMonaco’s dialogue is sometimes both cliché-ridden and weirdly original. Consider the scene where a character mentions Greek philosophy to explain a supposed parallel between loving and dying. This same scene ends with the following exchange…Character 1: “It’s really quiet out there now”. Character 2: “Yeah… that’s what worries me.” The rationale used by Gabriel Byrne’s character to continue the siege is also priceless. Byrne, perhaps not believing the enormities he has to say, acts with detachment and only puts life into his inflection during the final showdown. On the positive side, there is something captivating about the battle of wits between Roenick and Bishop, and you may agree that the door is left open for a sequel in an interesting way.
In Carpenter’s film, which echoed the core struggle of “Night of the Living Dead” more than the story of the more often mentioned “Rio Bravo”, the precinct attackers were shot dead, often right by the windows, and that was that. Here Richet seems to consider deaths (the violent kind) as recurring tableaux. He seems fond of a particular shot of blood slowly streaming from a forehead-located gunshot, as if trying to express some morbid poetry about it. I wasn’t too crazy about one of his previous films, “Ma 6-T va cracker”, which to me was little more than wild, senseless demonstrations of violence halted with idle talk from the disaffected youth of the inner city. This new “Assault”, while a decent police thriller, suffers from the same problem. A whole lot of people get killed and a whole lot of stuff is destroyed, but not much sense is made of it all.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay