Assault on Precinct 13 (2005)

2011 #55
Jean-François Richet | 104 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Assault on Precinct 13John Carpenter’s rough-and-ready ’70s exploitation B-movie is remade as a slick ’00s action B-movie dressed up as an A-movie by director Jean-François Richet (who would go on to find far greater critical acclaim with his two-part French crime epic Mesrine).

James DeMonaco’s screenplay presents an essentially new story built on the premise of the original film. So we’re still in a police station on its last night before closing down, there’s still a group of prisoners who turn up to be left in the cells overnight, and there’s still a gang outside laying siege to the handful of people holed up within — but, other than that, all other details are replaced or re-arranged. Which is a good thing, really — who wants a virtually-identical remake? For that you can watch the original. Unfortunately, the new stuff isn’t necessarily as compelling as what it’s replaced.

For starters, there’s now a surfeit of character backstory, and yet for all that extra work I’d argue we probably care about these characters less than those in the original. The original’s quasi-horror element is also sadly lost, by turning the faceless demonic gang into an enemy that not only has a face (in the form of a leader) but also a proper motive and everything. In part this is just the difference between ’70s and ’00s moviemaking, especially when what was an exploitation B-movie becomes mainstream action fare, but it makes things more bland.

Siege startsI don’t have hard timings to back this up, but I think the siege starts earlier and lasts longer here. It certainly felt that way, in part because the character of the father (whose act of revenge leads the gang to the precinct in the original) is gone. Of course, the film is about the titular assault on the titular station, so I think this refocussing is more than fair enough. It, naturally, emphasises the siege element of a film about a siege, something the original almost reneged on with its lengthy setup.

Generally, however, things could do with tightening up here. Even if the siege seems to start earlier, the beginning especially goes on too long. One might well argue it did in the original too, but this isn’t emulating that — an awful lot of what happens is new, as I said: many of the characters and situations from the original have no corollary in the remake. Besides, there are some scenes included in the DVD’s deleted scene package that I think have more of a place in the film than some of what’s left.

The prologue is an excellent case in point. It seems to serve a purpose in setting up Ethan Hawke’s backstory… but we’re told all we need to know about that in the body of the film. In fact, if the opening were lost, why Hawke’s character is the way he is might unfold as more of a mystery throughout the film, which would make it an awful lot more interesting. HawkeThe only reason the prologue is necessary is if you want to begin your movie with an action sequence… so that’s why it there then. It’s also set in a sun-drenched summery atmosphere, totally at odds with the well-evoked wintery New Year that pervades post-titlecard. Consequently, looking back on the prologue, it feels even more out of place. I think it’s also designed to set a Gritty tone, with its rundown apartment and drugs deal and all that palaver; probably because the rest of the film is too far-fetched, if you were hoping viewers were going to be in mind of The Wire or something. For all kinds of reasons, then, it doesn’t work; it should’ve gone.

At least the changes allow the film to be moderately fresh. If only the basic concept is the same, that allows for all sorts of new twists and surprises. It’s a Hollywood blockbuster so you can still spot who’ll survive to the end — mostly — but a few twists and surprises are thrown in here and there. I don’t know how many of them the trailer decided to reveal, but going in relatively blind (always easier for a not-terribly-successful film once it’s become a few years old) may well be beneficial.

In terms of the representation of race on screen, this is a film that could certainly be seen as a step backwards. While the original had a black police officer in charge of a white criminal, here not only is the lead officer white — as are all but one of the dozens of other policemen — but all the Black criminalscriminals inside the precinct are black or (in one case) hispanic. Ouch. You could try to argue we’ve developed past the need to force anti-stereotyping in casting; or you could argue this is a mainstream studio remake that felt the need to fall back on the familiar. It might not be a noticeable point were it not for it being so markedly different to the original.

Assault on Precinct 13 Mk.II has the decency to only take the original’s concept and craft a modified narrative around that, at least giving it some kind of point. Judged on its own terms, though it wastes too much time on over-familiar character beats it emerges as a moderately entertaining, if bland, action-thriller.

3 out of 5

See also my comparison of this and the 1976 original here.

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