First published by Movie Gazette
It is a story that has been told many times before: in the Seventies, Hollywood’s studio system gave way to an auteur-oriented movement embracing creativity and the counterculture, and producing some of the most innovative and confronting films ever to have emerged from the United States. Today those times may have well and truly passed, but there is something of a seventies revival going on, filling our screens with ‘reimaginings’ of seventies gems like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, The Toolbox Murders, The Stepford Wives, and now Assault on Precinct 13 (or AP13, to give the remake its snappier, oh-so-Noughties title) – except that John Carpenter’s original low-budget siege flick from 1976 was itself a reimagining of Howard Hawks’ 1959 western Rio Bravo, and owed a considerable debt along the way to George A. Romero’s zombie classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), making it a story that really has been told many times before.
Writer James DeMonaco, who also penned the siege thriller The Negotiator (1998), has preserved in AP13 all the core elements that made the original Assault On Precinct 13 so taut. There is the action confined to a single day and night, the decommissioned police station under attack from murderous outsiders, and the skeleton staff joining forces with their own criminal detainees to fight off the relentless assault. Yet while DeMonaco is respectful enough of the original not to offend its fans, he has crafted a story that is sufficiently different in its details to engage, and even surprise, them. All the cultural references have of course been updated, the location has shifted from Los Angeles to a snowbound Detroit, the date is now New Year’s Eve (with a thematic emphasis on reform and renewal well suited to the film’s reimagined status), and the siege weaponry used, including laser sights, stun grenades and full body armour, is frighteningly state-of-the-art (although, in a charming nod to the film’s oater origins, the police station also houses an ancient gattling gun).
The most obvious deviation from the original, however, lies in the characterisation, which is both very different and far more developed – and in a story where identities and moralities blur and nothing is black or white, even the colour of the main players has changed. Lieutenant Ethan Bishop, the black hero of the original, has here been thoroughly reinvented as the white Jake Roenick (Ethan Training Day Hawke), a former undercover detective who has become a desk sergeant in an attempt to forget his own tragic past, while Bishop’s original name and race have now been transferred to the anti-hero Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), a cop-killing racketeer who must help the police (or at least some of them ) to save himself. In marked contrast to Carpenter’s film, where only three or four actual personalities were allowed to come to the fore and the assailants were almost zombie-like in their silent anonymity, here everyone has their own individuality and even the attackers (whose identity and motive have been radically changed in one of the film’s best twists) are fleshed out into believable characters.
The result is a film with as much tension as the original, but far more character-based drama and psychological depth (signaled by the presence of police psychologist Alex Sabian, played by Maria Bello, on hand to sort through all the foibles and conflicts). Director Jean-François Richet gets us to care about his characters, before turning them all against one another and allowing them to die in surprising numbers. From its arresting (if that is the word) opening sequence to its cat-and-mouse climax, AP13 is a thrilling ride, making it one of those rare remakes which is actually an improvement on its (already excellent) original.
Summary: This second assault on the unlucky precinct proves that practice makes perfect.
© Anton Bitel