On a snowstormy New Years Eve, Sergeant Roenick (Hawke) is left in charge of a nearly defunct police station in downtown Detroit. After taking an unwanted delivery of crooks including ganglord Bishop (Fishburn) who need cells for the night, Roenicks
Between the scruffily satirical sci-fi spoof Dark Star and the lean machine of Halloween, John Carpenter made Assault On Precinct 13, a thriller which transplanted elements of the Wild West (especially Rio Bravo) into gang-overrun Los Angeles. A cult hit in Europe, the first Assault was barely released in the US and never quite gained the following of Carpenter’s other early hits. So it seems a less obvious candidate for a modern make-over than other genre items from the ’70s like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Dawn Of The Dead. It’s such a patchwork of bits and pieces from other movies that it already seems like a radical remake – therefore, a new version ought to need a pressing reason to exist.
Oddly, this suspenseful and entertaining redo bypasses those expectations. Like the new Dawn and Texas, it tweaks and rethinks rather than updates. If it misses the shock and awe of the 1976 Assault (no gutshot little girl here, and, sadly, no sparse, nervewracking Carpenter score), the remake is still a solid cop-and-crook exercise, with plentiful gunplay and jagged character acting.
An added 20 minutes means more plot and a slightly bigger cast of besieged characters. In place of zombie-like gangbangers, the besiegers are a well-motivated and equipped team, and the supercool criminal who happens to be in the near-derelict cop shop overnight is linked to the attack rather than an ‘innocent’ bystander. It’s good stuff, but also more conventional, and some of Carpenter’s Hawksian licks have been imitated so many times that doing them again here gets Naked Gun-ish laughs.
Hawke, with tattoos and twitches, holds down the fort, and Fishburne channels Chow Yun Fat’s impeturbability (Marion Bishop is a long way from Jimmy Jump of King Of New York). But the most fun comes from unpredictable support players like John Leguizamo as a motormouth junkie who always has something unhelpful to say, Maria Bello as a therapist who cracks, Brian Dennehy as the near-retirement veteran (uh-oh) and, especially, Drea DeMatteo as a gun-toting secretary in fishnets who’s resolved to give up both smoking and bad boys for the New Year. Somebody give her a whole movie, please.
No prize for originality, but how original does a cop-action-siege thriller have to be? A smart script, edgy acting and a gradual accumulation of suspense set-pieces makes for a decent popcorn high.