The Film: Assault on Precinct 13 (2005)
The Principals: Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, John Leguizamo, Maria Bello, Ja Rule, Brian Dennehy, Gabriel Byrne and Drea de Matteo. Directed by Jean-François Richet.
The Premise: Sergeant Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke) was an undercover cop, until some jerkass Serbian drug dealers killed his entire team. Now, eight months later, Roenick is addicted to pills and has taken a desk job at Detroit’s shittiest, oldest police station, Precinct 13. It is New Year’s Eve, and Precinct 13 has been pared down to a skeleton crew because it is being closed forever. This makes Roenick poorly prepared to house ubermobster Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne) when the police vehicle transporting him and three other criminals is forced to take shelter at the precinct due to a treacherous blizzard. Roenick is even less prepared when a horde of corrupt cops looking to kill Bishop show up and decide to kill everyone. And he is even lessly less prepared to face down his own demons and bullshit. Can Roenick and his cops learn to trust the criminals, and can the criminals learn to play by Ja rules? Get it? Ja rules? Cause Ja Rule is in this movie. Remember Ja Rule? He did that song with J-Lo.
Is It Good: Assault 2005 isn’t an awful film. Though it is a dramatically inert film. Which I suppose pushes it closer to being awful than good, all things considered. Anyway, I’ve long grown weary comparing remakes to their originals. And Assault 2005 is attempting to be about as similar to John Carpenter’s seedy 1976 original as Carpenter was trying to be similar to Howard Hawkes’ Rio Bravo, which Carpenter was intentionally ripping off — in other words, the remake isn’t aiming that closely, other than swiping the most basic elements of Carpenter’s concept. The problem with Jean-François Richet’s Assault has nothing to do with whether or not it succeeded in respectfully replicating the sleazy touch of the 1976 film. I really don’t care about that. All it had to do for me was hold my attention and provide some cheap thrills. It managed a bit of the latter, but it had difficulty accomplishing the former, which ended up canceling everything out.
I’m not sure how this film wound up with such a solid cast. Ja Rule aside, Assault has a nice a line-up. Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, Brian Dennehy, Gabriel Byrne, John Leguizamo, Maria Bello, Drea de Matteo (during the high-point of her career), and I always like seeing character actor Kim Coates pop up. That rundown reads like the cast list of a movie that either had an appealing script or some cheddar to toss around. The film had a fairly modest $30 million budget, but with most of the film taking place in one location, they must have had a good percentage of their cash available for the actors. Because it wasn’t the script. At least I hope so because most of the cast flounders under the oppressive weight of their dialogue — particularly Mario Bello and the normally unsinkable Dennehy. Dennehy is definitely phoning it in; bored by a cliche, thankless role that feels confusingly unimportant (to have nabbed an actor like Dennehy) until you realize he probably will be involved in some manner of story twist. Which he is. Bello on the other hand, I just don’t know. She’s never been a heavy-hitter of an actress, but I’ve always found her to be good or at least inconspicuous. But she seems utterly lost as Roenick’s psychiatrist Alex. I have to wonder if Richet was giving her increasingly confusing direction in every scene, because her performance is scattershot and amateurish (and she’s no amateur). This is a cheesy movie full of cookie-cutter characters, yet I never got a sense of who Alex is or if I’m supposed to like her or not, to sympathize with her or find her annoying. Once the violence begins, Alex reveals that she has OCD, which causes her to do math out loud any time she’s in danger. People are shooting at her, and she’s yelling numbers to herself. (It isn’t as funny as it sounds.) She is initially positioned as the romantic lead, but she becomes such a neurotic nuisance so quickly that even amongst a throng of lame, irrelevant characters she somehow feels the most irrelevant. Bello’s attractiveness does nothing to offset this either.
Ja Rule is well-cast if I was supposed to be happy when his character Smiley (who only speaks in the third person) dies early and unceremoniously. And Leguizamo is well cast if I was supposed to want his endlessly jabbering character to be punched in the face. The biggest emotional reaction Assault got out of me was when Fishburne punches Leguizamo in the neck. I actually like Fishburne quite a bit in this, doing some stoic scenery chewing (if such a thing is possible). His scenes with Hawke, rationally explaining the moments in which he is willing to work together and when he is not, hint at a better movie lurking around the corner. The ending of the film is predictable – uh, I guess spoiler alert if you give a shit – but if you don’t assume the film will end with Roenick letting Bishop go after all the blood and dust has cleared, then you do not see enough films, my friend. But I appreciated that Bishop doesn’t turn out to have a heart of gold or learn some sort of lesson. This movie is trying to be mean and brutal, and that would have been a letdown.
The real shame of the film is that it isn’t quite good enough to live up to its own mean, brutality. Gabriel Byrne’s corrupt cop villain, Captain Marcus Duvall, flirts with coolness — mostly because of Byrne’s presence. While the dialogue is so-so, a scene in which Duvall and his #2, Mike (Currie Graham), rationalize killing not only innocent people but fellow officers in their quest to murder Bishop also hints at a more complex and memorable film-that-could-have-been. Duvall is remorselessly brutal. On paper. (Uh, I guess spoiler alert again in a sec’.) With only a minimal number of characters in the film, you fully expect a good portion of our heroes and antiheroes to die, but I was successfully surprised when Duvall puts a bullet in Alex’s head. Yet, and this is why I don’t care about spoilers, it is all for naught. One unexpected death hardly makes this film worthwhile. Plus, the moment is also hurt by the fact that I didn’t care about the character. The only surprise was learning that the filmmakers didn’t care either. For me, the film never managed to connect with its own ideas. Bits like Ja Rule and Leguizamo completely going to town on one of the cops who has broken into the precinct are supposed to be visceral jolts — criminals getting to kills a cop! But these moments have no emotional relevance. The evil cops are all faceless and almost entirely nameless. Duvall’s character briefly seems interesting in that aforementioned scene because he was saying that he valued the safety of his men (the safety of not getting arrested when Bishop reveals they’re all dirty) and the well-being of their families over the lives of the people in Precinct 13. But his men are all wearing heavy armor and masks. They’re just drones. If more of them had been characters, and if Duvall had, you know, seemed at all upset when their attempts to the storm the precinct kept failing and leading to deaths, maybe things would have been different.
Is It Worth A Look: If it is on TV, and you’re in the mood for an action film, and all you really require is that it not be awful, then you could do worse. The action is loud and unspectacular, but I wouldn’t say I was necessarily ever bored, just disengaged.
Random Anecdote: Laurence Fishburne’s character is named Bishop, which was the last name of hero (Austin Stoker) in John Carpenter’s original film.