Assault on Precinct 13 (review)

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Jailhouse Wreck

So, we’re told as Assault on Precinct 13 opens, this is “A Why Not Production,” which pretty much sums up the attitude behind the endeavor. “Why Not steal the title of an old cult favorite and slap it on a shoddy, contrived action movie and pretend it’s a remake? Who’s gonna stop us? You?”

No, you will be the bitch of the Why Not people, lured into the movie theater by a trailer that’s more exciting and more coherent than the film itself is, and even having paid your ten bucks, you will sit there and wonder, Why Not just walk out?
I say, Go for it, because it all just keeps making less and less sense as it unspools, though it does also get funnier, too, so that by the time Ethan Hawke has escaped the precinct under assault — come on, you knew he would — to chase a bad guy into the thick forest that has mysteriously materialized behind his Detroit police station, you’re gonna need the good guffaw that boneheaded moment of cinematic nonsense provides.

Hopefully, John Carpenter banked a nice chunk of change for letting the Why Not people swipe his title and the barest skeleton of his concept, because I’m afraid that rather than drum up interest in his 1976 film, potential new audiences for it may be turned off, if they end up thinking the two movies have something in common besides a name. A police precinct is closing down, and on the last night before the shuttering, the few cops and civilian staffers holding down the fort come under seige from forces outside. There endeth the similarities. The cities are different — here it’s Detroit; in 1976 it was Los Angeles — the bad guys and their motivations couldn’t be more dissimilar, but most importantly, the tone and the attitudes about law and order, about filmed violence, and about what is thrilling and terrifying on film are a universe apart.

Actually, to ascribe deliberate tone and attitude to this new Precinct 13 is giving it more credit than it deserves. This is like a tenth-generation Xerox of Die Hard — call it Die Hard in a Cop Shop — blurry, fuzzy, just faintly hinting at far superior movies it’s trying to ape but succeeding only in eliciting scorn that it thinks it has a chance at being a tenth as engaging as them. Like all such movies, this is R-rated death porn that isn’t even worthy of being labeled an “action movie.” It is thoughtless, brainless, by-the-numbers filmmaking that thinks it’s clever when it invents convoluted new ways to kill a character — like the icicle-in-the-eye trick (though didn’t Bruce Willis in fact use that one in Die Hard in an Airport?) — but will settle for the standby of “riddled with bullets” when it can’t.

Of course, director Jean-François Richet and screenwriter James DeMonaco believe they’re being serious and intense. Hawke’s (Taking Lives, Before Sunset) cop has issues: he’s still haunted by the deaths of his team eight months earlier in an undercover situation gone bad, and Hawke, no action hero, treats the role like his character is in some sort of extreme, bullet-ridden therapy session. Indeed, his department-ordered therapist (a badly underutilized Maria Bello: Silver City, Secret Window) manages to get caught up the siege, and so is able to let him know how well he’s progressing in this shock-to-the-system recovery.

All of which only compounds this problem: Precinct 13 is the kind of movie culture warriors look to when they complain that Hollywood has inured us to violence, not merely by depicting it but by playing the bloody, drawn-out deaths of human beings for laughs, as a lark, as a mere diversion for a Friday night. Which is a tremendous slap in the face to Carpenter’s film, a nihilistic portrait of senseless, random violence that remains deeply shocking today for that very random senselessness… but one that does not fall into total despair by positing law enforcement, for all its tendencies toward corruption, as the bulwark that prevents our entire society from descending into brutality. Here, though, lawlessness is institutional and endemic even among Detroit’s police force, and Laurence Fishburne’s (The Matrix Revolutions, Mystic River) gangster and cop killer, with whom Hawke’s cop is forced to team up to defend his precinct house, is a thoughtful philosopher, practically the hero of the film. Here, the cops and the criminals are nearly indistinguishable, and Hawke is capable of a bleak kind of heroism that rejects convenient murder only because he has witnessed the deaths of people close to him. There is no morality here — there is only base practicality. Which is a complete perversion of the ethos of Carpenter’s film. A greater betrayal is hard to imagine.

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