In 1976, two years before Halloween put him on the map as a director, John Carpenter took a two-cent budget and a cast of five-cent actors and fried our nerves with Assault on Precinct 13, a brutal, primitive crime thriller that can still pin you to your seat (check out the DVD). Set in a nearly deserted police station in Los Angeles, Carpenter’s shoot-’em-up pitted a cop and a few prisoners against an invading street gang, as faceless as the zombies in Night of the Living Dead. The film, with a plot urbanized from Rio Bravo — the western ring John Wayne guarding a jail — and galvanized by Carpenter’s synthesizer score, showed how tension could be generated by sweat and sheer cunning.
Now we have a remake that overwhelms the B-movie spirit of the original by throwing , money, plot complications and twenty extra minutes at it. Here’s a gaunt, gritty Ethan Hawke as Sgt. Jake Roenick, the boozing, pill-popping cop in charge of the precinct — its locale changed from L.A. to Detroit so the f/x crew can toss in a snowstorm. The time is New Year’s Eve, just before the precinct is set to be shut down. Jake spars with an old-school cop (Brian Dennehy) and gets a visit from his shrink (Maria Bello) and a come-on from his secretary (Drea de Matteo, who can nail a line like “I fuck bad boys”).
Director Jean-Francois Richet (a producer of rap artists in France) shows a fan’s worship for the surface of the Carpenter film while entirely missing its essence. Screenwriter James DeMonaco (The Negotiator) doesn’t help by adding trite character details that delay the big bang when Jake takes in four prisoners for the night. Beck (John Leguizamo), Smiley (Ja Rule) and Anna (Aisha Hinds) are garden-variety hoods. But Bishop, the drug lord played with caged heat by Laurence Fishburne, is the big kahuna. That’s no nameless gang outside opening fire on Precinct 13. It’s a squad of on-the-take cops, led by Marcus (Gabriel Byrne), out to make damn sure that Bishop won’t live to testify against them.
And so, as Jake arms his prisoners as deputies, ambiguity is replaced by TV crime cliches. Nothing in Richet’s retooling, despite ace camerawork from Robert Gantz, is as ballsy as the infamous moment in the first film when a gang sniper takes out a little girl just as she complains to her daddy that the ice-cream man gave her the wrong flavor: “I wanted vanilla twist,” she says. Then boom. The remake never approaches anything as assaultive to moral values. By playing it safe, the new Precinct leaves the audience sorry and restores thirteen to its place as the unluckiest number.