IN JEAN-FRANÇOIS RÍCHET'S EXCITABLY PUPPYISH HOMAGEto John Carpenter's 1976 cult classic Assault on Precinct 13, a bedraggled crew of cops and jailbirds holed up in a condemned police station come under fire—not, as in Carpenter's movie, from a vengeful Los Angeles street gang but from a bunch of corrupt cops. This is 2005 and the problem, it seems, is no longer them but us. Still, Ríchet's aesthetic is somewhat faithful to the original. Like Carpenter, Ríchet is enchanted by the dialogue between the codes of the Western and the gangster movie, with an unapologetic preference for the former. The original Assault was a loving tip of the hat to Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo from a director who wryly declared himself “a little before my time.” Ríchet is very much a creature of his time, though the young French director does share Carpenter's love of extremity, his embrace of the siege as a force field in which conventional morality and rule of law fall away and strange bedfellows emerge, and his twisted feminism, in which women on the verge prove themselves capable of doing everything a man's gotta do.
While both Assaults are swan songs, at once romantic and cynical, for the decaying inner city, Ríchet, who claims Straw Dogs and The French Connection as extra inspiration, has grander ambitions too. He means to up the ante on Carpenter and join his stylized formal elegance to a gritty realism that updates three decades of change in the modern cityscape, not to mention in the technology of carnage. Carpenter's terrain was a South-Central Los Angeles as desolate and clean of line as any wild frontier, his context the 1970s redrawing of urban racial divisions. Ríchet transposes the action to the snow and ice of a Detroit New Year's Eve, with a far more compromised hero presiding over the last hours of a precinct house being readied for the bulldozers, and a far more lethal prisoner for his hero to pair off with. As if to underscore the ambiguity of heroism, and of race in our age, the name Carpenter gave the 1976 version's standup black cop, Bishop, has been reassigned to a racketeer and cop killer who's brought into the precinct at the 11th hour because of hazardous road conditions as he, like his predecessor, is being transferred to another prison. Bishop, played with customary cool menace by Laurence Fishburne, is a man entirely at peace with who he is, which is more than can be said for Sergeant Jake Roenick (played by Ethan Hawke, who looks as if he has given up on food altogether), a burnout who keeps his motor running on pills, Jack Daniel's and a crippling sense of responsibility for the deaths of several colleagues in a recent drug bust. Along with a crusty veteran cop (Brian Dennehy), an oversexed secretary (amusingly played by The Sopranos' Drea de Matteo) and the earnest police psychologist (Maria Bello) who's been trying to treat his posttraumatic stress, Roenick has been assigned caretaker duties in the all-but-abandoned precinct. This is drudgery indeed—until Bishop's arrival attracts a hail of bullets from state-of-the-art laser guns and a blackout so sophisticated it knocks out cell-phone contact.
The movie's bitter joke is that this time it's not gangbangers laying siege, but an elite crime squad headed by a veteran cop (Gabriel Byrne) with his own warped code of honor to uphold. The Rampart Division scandals notwithstanding, the implication that police corruption is now a greater threat to urban social order than gang activity smacks of glib armchair sociology. But that's no more the point of this movie than it is of any cackling Tarantino actioner, to which Ríchet, a child of the French projects who made the rap-studded genre film Ma 6-T va Crack-er, owes far more in the end than he does to Carpenter's clinical, chillingly spare violence. Or to Carpenter's sense of humor: James De Monaco's strenuously hipster script reaches for black comedy but never comes close to the sublimely adolescent scene in which two of the jailbirds play one potato, two potato to decide who will try to make a break for it. Before his decline into rote spooky thrills, Carpenter had many gifts, notable among them a kind of goofball courtliness that harked back not only to the Western but to a more civil age. At the end of his Assault, the cop says to his prisoner, “It would be a privilege to walk out with you.” Only a teenager could love a remake in which the two sum up their relationship with the choice phrase “Our shit's on pause, right?”
ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 WAS Directed by JEAN-FRANÇOIS RÍCHET; Written by JAMES DeMONACO, Based on the movie by JOHN CARPENTER; Produced by PASCAL CAUCHETEUX, STEPHANE SPERRY and JEFFREY SILVER; and stars LAURENCE FISHBURNE, ETHAN HAWKE and GABRIEL BYRNE. NOW PLAYING Countywide.