Recently, events converged to remind me there was a (sort of) remake of John Carpenter’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 back in 2005. Well, really what happened was that movie PLANE came out – the Gerard Butler one with the plane – and that’s from the same director, Jean-François Richet. He did a couple gritty French crime movies in the ‘90s and then his phone rang and Hollywood said, “Hello, this is Hollywood, would you be interested in remaking ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, or as you call it in France, ASSAUT?” I imagine he very thoughtfully said “Oui” and then hung up.
According to his commentary track they didn’t have the script yet when they hired him. He chose James DeMonaco to write it because he’d just seen THE NEGOTIATOR, a movie this does seem kinda similar to. DeMonaco had also written a film for Francis Ford Coppola*.
*okay, it was JACK
I saw this remake when it first came out on video, and I don’t think I hated it, but it definitely bothered me that they took only the generic part of the original’s siege premise and not the part that made it unique. But I figured I would be easier on it now. I’m nicer now. I’m one of life’s good guys.
Superficially it’s closer to the original than I remembered. You’ve got your attackers trying to kill everyone at a police precinct that only has a skeleton staff because it’s been decommissioned. You’ve got your prison bus that had to stop there with prisoners, and your sergeant realizing the only possibility of survival is to let the prisoners out to help fight. There’s also a secretary character (in the original there are two). They still climb through a sewer tunnel and try to hotwire a car. There’s still a thing about wanting a cigarette. And the sergeant and the criminal form a western style bond despite being on opposite sides in any other circumstances. Richet and DeMonaco even made little nods to RIO BRAVO (like playing Dean Martin music) because the original had its own nods (naming a character after screenwriter Leigh Brackett).
Weirdly they give the criminal (Laurence Fishburne in his first movie released after the conclusion of the MATRIX trilogy) the cop’s last name, Bishop. You’re really telling me you couldn’t see Laurence Fishburne – who had previously played characters named Midget, Bumpy Rhodes, Dap Dunlap, Jimmy Jump, Furious Styles, Hannibal Lee, Socrates Fortlow, and Whitey Powers – playing a character named “Napoleon Wilson”? I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.
Obviously the original PRECINCT 13 stood out from similar movies because of the signature Carpenter style and sound. It’s probly my favorite of his theme songs, and it’s unusual to have that kind of hypnotic synth score on a crime movie instead of horror. (Also, have you heard the alternate version with soul vocals? It’s amazing.)
But the other thing is the gang being so single-minded in their pursuit of revenge that they straight up become NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD style ghouls. They don’t speak. They don’t emote. They just keep coming. Carpenter makes them more of an evil force than a group of people, foreshadowing The Shape and The Fog. Here they’re plain old generic everyday gun-toting thugs that talk and stuff, like in every movie besides the one this is a remake of. That was hard to swallow 18 years ago, and I still don’t get what would possess a person to remake a movie by tweaking every little extraneous detail and then entirely removing the central conceit that the movie is all about. But that’s okay. I get now that people are into all kinds of freaky shit that I wouldn’t understand. I shall not judge. I’ll just accept it and move on.
The twist they put on it that’s more respectable is that they’re not just some savage gang getting revenge on the police, they’re a whole gang of corrupt cops trying to kill Bishop so he doesn’t rat them out as his partners. How many of them? “I can’t say exactly, but the blood money runs through your entire department.” So now it’s mostly this one cop, who as far as we see is a good person, but a fuck up in life, going against most of the other cops, who are despicable motherfuckers doing well for themselves and justifying it as all-American manly blue collar family supporting work.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke between BEFORE SUNSET and LORD OF WAR) is some guy in a tank top, talking to a Serbian gangster (Titus Welliver, MOBSTERS) about “this planet has been raped, pillaged and fucked, all right, and the mind is the only uncharted territory.” The jittery jumpcuts tell us this is a drug situation even before he holds up the bag of coke. It’s fun to watch Hawke being all jacked up and crazy, laughing like a kid watching Jackass when the gangster punches his own dog.
This was kinda fun to watch now because I couldn’t quite remember for sure if Hawke was playing the cop or the criminal. Yeah, he’s the cop, this is an undercover bust. It goes south, he gets shot in the leg and when next we see him 8 months later he’s addicted to painkillers and working a desk sergeant job at Precinct 13. We know he’s troubled because he wakes up and drinks from the whisky bottle on his bed stand, and we know he’s a sweetheart because he kept the Serbian’s dog and says “good morning” to him.
The original is a very L.A. movie, this one is set in Detroit on New Year’s Eve, during a snowstorm. Lots of digital snow shots, but I kinda like the stylized look it creates. And I like the set up in the precinct, this idea of three people getting ready to spend a weird last shift in the building, with most of the stuff packed up and trying to fit in some New Year’s Eve activities since they expect to have nothing else to do. The secretary, Iris (Drea de Matteo, SWORDFISH), is introduced bragging about having sex at Tiger Stadium and “acting on impulses with no guilt.” And really, no one could possibly predict if this is to set up her being attracted to Bishop later. But an officer says “you only bed criminals” and she says “I don’t bed criminals. I fuck bad boys. Big difference.”
I like Iris’s friendship with Roenick, who she calls “boss” and is excited to spend what she says is her favorite holiday (oh, come on) with him. I think I’d like the version of this where there’s no assault and it’s just a hang out movie.
Also on shift is jovial old timer Jasper O’Shea (Brian Dennehy, F/X2). When he said it was his last shift before retiring I spent one second thinking “He’s gonna die” and then from the next second until… later in the movie thinking, “Oh no, he’s a traitor, he set them up, he’s gonna make a speech about why it was justified, and why Roenick should’ve just gone along with it.” Maybe it wasn’t obvious, maybe nobody could’ve ever guessed it, it was just buried in my subconscious even though I forgot every single other thing about the movie.
Roenick still has to pack up some stuff from the evidence locker, which is so old that they find a fuckin tommygun in it! And apparently ammo for the tommygun since, yes, it is later used against the assaulters. Ridiculous, but I approve. I wish they would’ve done more with that. They breeze past it as if they think this movie would be improved by realism or subtlety.
Of course they gotta get a love interest in there for Roenick so they introduce Dr. Alex Sabian (Maria Bello right before A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, and a couple years before her beloved, iconic role as Evelyn “Evie” O’Connell in THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR), who has an adversarial/sexually-charged doctor-patient relationship with Roenick. She gives us the exposition about his psychological issues and he makes numerous inappropriate comments to her that she does not shut down because, we are to understand, she wants to fuck him sooooo bad but instead pretends to hate him. She’s not supposed to stick around but she gets stranded, wearing a sexy dress since she was planning to be at a party.
Two other notes about the doctor:
1. He must be doing some Jedi mind trick being able to lift a huge notebook sized file out of a bag she’s holding in plain sight without her noticing
2. He only calls her “Doc.” I know he’s in a movie and people in movies call doctors “Doc,” but I still gotta point it out. Who the fuck calls their doctor “Doc?”
So there’s this bus, driven by Dorian Harewood (SUDDEN DEATH) and guarded by Kim Coates (THE LAST BOYSCOUT), transferring prisoners. It gets stuck in the snow storm and they have to lock them up at the precinct. Everyone is in awe that one of the prisoners is the notorious gangster Bishop – especially hyper junkie weirdo Beck (John Leguizamo shortly before LAND OF THE DEAD), who’s practically star struck by him. Leguizamo has fun having a weird hair style and being kinda political, talking about “government sanctioned thugs abusing their authority again” and stuff. The other prisoners are Smiley (Ja Rule, HALF PAST DEAD), whose main thing is just that he talks about himself in the third person, like Gollum or Trump, and Anna (Aisha Hinds, GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS), who impresses everyone with her toughness but swears she’s not a criminal. On the commentary track producer Jeffrey Silver admits he was tricked into thinking she was a real gangbanger when they cast her.
Fishburne plays Bishop as stone cold, showing his power by calmly reading a carefully folded newspaper in his cell ignoring the others bickering. But the real bad guy is Captain Marcus Duvall of the Organized Crime and Racketeering squad (Gabriel Byrne, COOL WORLD), who commands the army of ski-masked cops cutting the power and attacking the precinct to make sure they don’t get ratted out for their criminal enterprise. Parked in a car nearby, he has a good evil speech arguing that “as a matter of simple mathematics” they have no choice but to murder all eight people inside the building “without pause, without regard.” Otherwise the lives of 33 “people I’m responsible for, people I love” – in other words, his fellow police officers involved in organized crime – would be destroyed. He clearly believes he’s the good guy, but he’s so not the good guy that he still sounds like an evil motherfucker saying it.
Soon after, Roenick gives his own speech to the prisoners, explaining to them that it’s not Bishop’s men attacking the building, it’s cops, but he’s going to do his best to protect them. And soon after that he realizes that means letting them out and arming them. There will of course be tensions – the ol’ Mexican standoff of distrust, for example, and a part where Beck and Smiley light the bus on fire as a distraction and try to run off but immediately get shot by a sniper. When Roenick promises to protect him, Bishop explicitly says he’ll only protect a cop if it’s in his own self interest. Luckily when it matters he decides it’s in his own self interest.
There are some bursts of entertaining violence. My favorite is when Beck repeatedly stabs a cop with a sword from the evidence locker. I would’ve hung on to that if I were him. There’s a good stunt when Bishop throws molotov cocktails and a guy who’s on fire flies out a window, and there’s a shot where Roenick very confidently walks up behind a guy and shoots him point blank in the head, and the bullet also goes through an office window.
There’s a decent shock moment when (SPOILER) Duvall brutally executes “Doc” and we see her laying dead as her digital blood soaks the snow. Coming about 80 minutes into the movie it’s not as much of a gut punch as Kim Richards getting shot at the ice cream truck in the original, but I was surprised they went that hard.
It’s interesting that this has some parallels with PLANE. In that movie Gerard Butler plays a commercial pilot who crash lands on a hostile island, and there’s a prisoner being transported on the plane. The officer in charge dies, so the pilot has to make the moral call of whether to leave the prisoner in handcuffs. Like Roenick here he decides to free him, they work together to survive, gain some respect for each other, and he’s okay with letting the prisoner escape at the end. In PRECINCT 13, though, it’s the POINT BREAK, VAMPIRES, THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, or FAST FIVE type ending where he lets him go on a temporary basis, with a promise that he’ll catch up to him later.
Unsurprisingly Hawke is my favorite thing about the movie. He always commits to the genre movies and programmers as much as the respectable ones, and that always elevates them a little. He works well for a character who knows he’s a fuckup but covers it up with charm. I like the scene where he and Beck are stuck in a room together and compare notes about the pills they use. They have some things in common.
And Fishburne is a good choice for the movie, playing a smooth, in control gangster type character around the time he graduated to playing authority figure supporting roles (a sergeant in MYSTIC RIVER, IMF Director in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III, a doctor in CONTAGION, Perry White in MAN OF STEEL, etc.)
A crucial difference here is that this is about two guys “putting their shit on pause.” The original is about a trio surviving together. Roenick and Bishop have entirely different vibes from their equivalent characters in the original, and it wouldn’t be fair to compare too directly, but I think it’s a failure that the filmmakers didn’t make Iris anywhere near as cool as her counterpart Leigh, played by Laurie Zimmer. Iris is made compelling by de Mateo, but it’s very much in spite of what they gave her to do.
One of her big scenes is when she’s alone with Bishop (a “bad boy”), lustily fondles her gun and complains about how horny she is. “I mean, I usually think about sex alot, but this is crazy.”
“Well, sex and death are very closely related,” he says. “The Greeks called it Eros and Thanatos, love and death.”
Okay to be fair Bishop saying the corniest line of all time as if he thinks it’s deep makes him look more ridiculous than Iris. But I’m still puzzled what this scene is supposed to do. If it’s meant to be titillating it chickens out – they’re interrupted and then drop it. Anyway, de Matteo does a great job with a character not worthy of her talents. She could’ve been as cool as those two.
So I still don’t love ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 ’05, but I can appreciate it. The Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus says it’s “been praised by some as an expertly made B-movie,” which is a pretty funny thing to say about a $30 million wide release studio remake of a way more artful $100,000 indie cult movie that played actual drive-ins in its day. But I get what they’re saying. I can get behind it as a decent studio meat-and-potatoes type movie with a few interesting touches.
The last of those interesting touches is the song on the end credits. It is not, I’m sorry to say, an update of the original theme. They have a decent score by Graeme Revell (MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS: THE MOVIE) but seem unaware that there’s an iconic theme song that could easily be translated into other styles and still be cool. The incomprehensible choice to not use it at all is something for them to settle with their God when the time comes. So I’ll stay out of it.
But since they didn’t do the right thing I appreciate that their backup was getting KRS-One to do a theme song. Musically it pales in comparison to his theme for I’M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA, “Jack of Spades,” but it’s pretty funny to hear him doing the same thing for a serious movie. He says the title a bunch of times, describes the plot a little bit, quotes and samples a few lines. He doesn’t say the character names, but he does us one better – he mentions both Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne. Even crazier, he name drops the director! How many movies do that?
In many cases you might assume a rap theme song was a commercially-driven producer idea, possibly against the wishes of the director. I’m pretty sure that’s not the case here, because the director and the Blastmaster go way back. KRS previously did a song for the soundtrack to Richet’s 1997 film MA 6-T CRACK-ER (MY SUBURBS ARE GOING TO CRACK). That’s why they’re on a first name basis in the lyrics, I bet.
DeMonaco is now better known for writing and directing the first three THE PURGE movies (the first one benefiting from another all-in performance by Hawke, of course). But Richet didn’t stick around in Hollywood after this one. He went back to France and made the two-part crime epic MESRINE (2008), starring Vincent Cassel. He didn’t return to English language filmmaking until 2016’s BLOOD FATHER, a very good later Mel Gibson vehicle, if you’re open to such a thing. PLANE has already made almost as much money as PRECINCT 13, on a lower budget, and is still playing in theaters, so it might end up being his first film to make money. I’ll be interested to see what he does with any clout that may give him.
February 8th, 2023 at 4:49 pm
Been awhile since I saw this, but I recall enjoying it a lot. And yes, Hawke is the best thing about this movie, as Hawke tends to be whenever he’s called upon to act jittery, hyper-stressed and super intense, and I’m talking going all the way back to DEAD POETS SOCIETY.
And yes….the brutal execution of a character you’re sure would make it to the end credits, maybe preceded by a little clinch under a mistletoe before the screen fades to black…is shocking!
I’m sure I still have the DVD for this, maybe time time to dig it out for a re-watch.