When casting an eye across the slew of remakes spawned from the movies of the gaggle of iconic directors who honed their genre craft in the 70’s and 80’s, its unsurprisingly a mixed bag. Romero, for example, got off fairly easy with rousing redos of Dawn Of The Dead and The Crazies while Tobe Hooper alternatively got a decidedly mixed bag with new versions of Texas Chainsaw (thumbs up) and Poltergeist (thumbs way down) varying in quality.
However, an argument can be made that none have had it tougher than the back catalogue of horror’s favourite grump, John Carpenter who had to tolerate such wildly divisive fare being churned out as The Fog, Rob Zombie’s Halloween movies and the prequel/remake of The Thing – not that it actually bothered the legendary Carpenter that much who cashed the checks and continued happily playing video games. But while all seemingly missed the point, one managed to stand and be defiantly ok, and while it admittedly lacks the raw simplicity of the orginal, 2005’s Assault On Precinct 13 manages to be a nicely, above average thriller.
It’s New Years Eve in Detroit and former undercover cop turned burnt out Desk Sergeant Jake Roenick is just trying to make it through his shift as the majority of the staff of precinct 13 have transferred out or have time off over the holidays. Struggling with a hefty painkiller/alcohol addiction due to a traumatic sting gone bad, Jake weathers the good mood of epically flirty receptionist Iris and the intests of over-invested police psychiatrist Alexandra Sabian as the hours drag painfully by, but soon all the responsibility he’s been hiding from at his desk job will soon rise up and overwhelm like the violent snowstorm billowing up outside.
A prison bus containing a handful of criminals simply can’t make it on the icy roads Detroit has to offer, so it pulls in to the barely manned precinct to stick their lawless cargo in their holding cells for the night. So far, so annoying for Jake, but one of the criminals turns out to be the notorious crime boss Marion Bishop and this causes a chain reaction of death and destruction when a full on hit squad, equipped with sniper rifles and night vision goggles descend on the building with the aim to wipe out literally everyone on the premises in order to get to the icily charismatic Kingpin. However, this is not Bishop’s men doing the assaulting in some violent form of rescue mission, no, this squad of killers turn out to be a group of Detroit’s “finest” led by the corrupt Captain Marcus Duvall who were in business with Bishop and who want to silence him by any means necessary in order to protect themselves.
Can the small group of police and criminals trapped inside trust each other long enough to mount a defence against a group of trained killers and survive the night?
So to be fair, stating Assault On Precinct 13 as a great remake is giving it a little bit too much credit – it’s not that Jean-Francois Richet (who went on to direct Mesrine with Vincent Cassel) has delivered a bad movie, quite the contrary, but I’ve always felt that a remake should not only share the basic plot as the original but also the spirit of it too.
The concept is the same – police and perpetrators holed up in the titular precinct while an unknown, faceless enemy attacks them in waves – but one of the main reasons that Carpenter’s classic holds up so well is the almost animalistic simplicity it approaches its subject. The street gang that did the original assaulting indulged in worsless nihilistic anarchy and had no flowery reasons behind their motives except to indulge in a blood feud for a murdered member – similarly the two lead characters, good guy Ethan Bishop and charismatic anti-hero Napoleon Wilson were thinly sketched, the movie far more interested in the actions of the present than focusing on things like backstory or spelling out the crimes that Wilson was jailed for. As stark and to-the-point as the score Carpenter composed for the impossibly lean thriller is, the addition of big names and more complicated plot points just kind of suck the originality out of things and the slick remake aims more for the snow bound chaos of a Die Hard 2 (it even contains an icicle in the eye sequence) than the edgy simplicity of Night Of The Living Dead.
With that being said, taken as a standard thriller, Assault Of Precinct 13 – 2.0 actually has a lot to offer and its ensemble cast turn out to be nicely appealing.
Ethan Hawke can play tormented good guys in his sleep almost just as well as Laurence Fishburne can play slick and stylish rule breakers, but when you add Maria Bello’s panicky civilian, Drea de Matteo’s vampy receptionist, John Leguizamo’s rambling junkie, Brian Dennehy’s crusty old timer and Gabriel Byrne’s frosty villain, you have a cast that couldn’t screw things up if they tried.
Also, the action, while a bit conventional is also nicely stylish with the snowy backdrop of New Years Eve adding depth to the flashy cinematography. However, while the crooked cop angle may be new to the world of Carpenter’s hard as nails classic and is interestingly prescient now, at the time it sort of pigeonholed the movie into being just another boys in blue/bad guy movie that sat somewhere between Copland and 16 Blocks.
Something that did work in the remake’s favour is that it knows that it obviously can never top the original’s most shocking moment in a month of Sundays and so it focuses similar shocks elsewhere. The stone cold execution of an ice cream lapping little girl that sets off the whole shebang is simply unmatchable, so Assault 2005 tries to stun in other ways by having a hugely effective shock death of a major character play out instead of the usual illogical hostage taking that a lot of lesser thrillers would try to pull.
There’s faults of course, but nothing serious – Byrne’s villain feels a tad under cooked and some of the characters are written a little one note – but after turning my nose up at it on its original release, a return (to the return) to Precinct 13 reveals it to be far better than average even if the updating and modernisation of the material is the exact reason it doesn’t particularly stand out.