Admittedly John Carpenter’s 1976 Assault on Precinct 13 is not a perfect movie. This “low budget” film was one of the lowest. As Carpenter himself says, if it was shot today it would be on mini-DV.
It’s easy to imagine him in his garage, hunkered down over a laptop, editing it via Final Cut Pro. (He edited the original under the name, John T. Chance, John Wayne’s character in Rio Bravo, the Howard Hawks’ film that inspired it). It’s choppy in places. The acting is occasionally uneven. The sparse dialogue walks a thin line between quiet brilliance and stilted, every now and then stumbling into camp. But, unlike its successor, the 1976 version is more than the sum of its parts.
The original Assault on Precinct 13 is a bravura piece of filmmaking. Despite its flaws, it gets under your skin; urges you to the edge of your seat; and captivates you in a way that only a film this direct, uncluttered, and immediate can. The gap between the original and the remake is illustrative of what’s happened to moviemaking in the 30-plus years since Carpenter’s film was released.
Assault ’76 kicks off beneath the clear blue summer sky of Southern California, in an arid flatland full of bleached, boarded up stucco apartment buildings. The roads are empty. It is very still. It tells, in essence, the simple story of several people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is, literally, in the reductive sound bite parlance of the industry, Rio Bravo meets The Night of The Living Dead.
The story is anchored by Ethan Bishop, deftly played by Austin Stoker, a black police lieutenant who, on his first night back on the job, is assigned to baby-sit a crumbling ghetto precinct that will officially close at dawn. We never do find out why it’s his first night back, what happened to him, or why he’s exasperated that people seem to be aware of it. When he arrives at the nearly deserted precinct he’s told by Leigh, a sultry, hardboiled secretary beautifully underplayed by Laurie Zimmer, that nearly everything has been sent to the new station. The phones should have been diverted already.
Elsewhere, prisoner Napoleon Wilson is being transported to death row. When one of the two other cons on the bus becomes ill, the warden orders the driver to take them to the nearest police precinct so he can call a doctor. As played by Darwin Josten, Wilson comes across as a man slightly bewildered by his fate, but with no intention of whining about it. Although we never learn more about his crime than what’s implied by the warden’s unanswered question — “why’d you kill those men?” — we have the feeling that there was more to it than cold-blooded murder.
Meanwhile, four members of the Street Thunder gang cruise the wide, empty streets. They’ve been itching for blood since dawn when six of their members were gunned down by the cops. They violently kill an ice cream truck driver, as well as a young girl who had been buying a cone. The girl’s father, Lawson, gets a gun that was stashed in the ice cream truck and in a fit of rage kills one of the gang members. Realizing that he’s just signed his own death warrant, the father turns and runs straight into Precinct 13. He stumbles to the desk, mumbles that his daughter was shot, and collapses.
And so it begins. The phone goes dead, the electricity is cut. Surrounded by abandoned houses, there’s no one to hear the muffled shots, especially since the gang is using silencers. It isn’t long before all the extra characters are dead except for Bishop, Wilson, Leigh, the catatonic Lawson, and Wells, a black inmate who knows his number is up, but still can’t quite believe his lifelong run of bad luck is about to play out. As Wells, Tony Burton gives the film its most natural performance.
Bishop lets Wilson and Wells out of their cells, arms them, and together the four struggle to hold the attackers off. A task they soon realize they can’t win, not with their rapidly dwindling ammunition.
It is a sparse film. The dialogue is spare. The sets gritty, grim, nearly barren. What ignites it is the arbitrariness of the assault, played against the lean, finely honed characters who emerge as archetypal as they unite to face down the horror. There is nothing sentimental here. It’s a hard-eyed look at how life can go from benignly routine to incomprehensibly terrifying at the drop of a pin. How at the end of the day, all we really have to combat the onslaught is our integrity, regardless of how compromised, blurred, tattered or ultimately inadequate. No one has to explain this to us. We feel it.
The remake, however, is another story altogether.
Where the original allowed us to study the characters in order to get to know them, and only then sprang into action, this version is so afraid we’ll miss something that instead of showing us, it tells us. Everything. In great detail. It doesn’t trust us to “get it”, so like the boor who always seems to sit right behind you in the movie theatre loudly explaining everything to his date (and usually getting it wrong), so does the film. I’d wager that there’s as much dialogue in the first ten minutes of the remake as there was in the entire original. And none of it nearly as engaging. It’s cute, full of shtick, and littered with pumped up stereotypes.
For instance, rather than Austin Stoker’s achingly human portrayal of Ethan Bishop, Ethan Hawke’s Jake Roenick is a different kind of “hero” altogether. He is crippled by a massive case of self-indulgence. Okay, let me explain. Where Carpenter’s film opened with a few graphic scenes meant to let us know just how ugly it’s going to get, this version opens with a few graphic scenes meant to let us know just how troubled Jake is.
You see, Jake spent five years undercover, until eight months ago when a drug bust went bad, and through no fault of his own, his two partners were killed. He blames himself. Even though, as his dolled up beautiful shrink (they’re all gorgeous, right?), points out, he had nothing to do with it.
Not good enough for Jake, who clings to his undeserved guilt with greedy childish abandon. He drinks, pops pills and hides behind a desk job. You want to slap him and say, stop whining. Let go and move on. But like Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard, who simply can’t forgive himself for not being there when Hinckley shot Reagan because he’d thoughtlessly taken the day off to go to his mother’s funeral, Jake is haunted.
What happened to flawed heroes with real ghosts? In Die Hard, Reginald VelJohnson is legitimately troubled by the fact that he accidentally shot a kid. But when he faces his demons and saves Bruce Willis, the audience cheers. Here, Jake’s earnest speeches about doing everything he can to keep the people entrusted to his care alive sounds like the answer to a moral math problem. There’s nothing the least bit inspiring about it.
And then there’s the new incarnation of Leigh. All subtlety is gone, transformed into the obvious Iris, and portrayed with such mock pouty gusto by Drea de Matteo that we wonder if maybe Adrianna went into witness relocation after all, and the whole being blown away by Syl scenario was another of Pam Ewing’s dreams.
Coming from the bigger is better school of filmmaking, Assault ’05 ramps up just about every element. It’s no longer an ordinary day, it’s New Year’s Eve. And it’s snowing. It’s a blizzard, in fact. We’re no longer in the barren flatlands of Los Angeles, now, were on the edge of a forest in urban Detroit (don’t ask). And Bishop? No random murderer he, nope, he’s gangster extraordinaire. A cop killer who is a suave, slick Romeo who sits in his cell calmly doing a crossword puzzle, sure his lawyers will have him out by dawn.
His fellow prisoners? Ah, what’s the point of colorful supporting players if each one doesn’t have a cute quirk to define them? Ja Rule as Smiley always refers to himself in the third person; Aisha Hinds is a gang banger who swears she never broke a law in her life before admitting she’s aces at hotwiring cars; and finally as Beck there’s John Legizamo, who seems to think he’s in the midst of a solo show, something about a hyper disaffected junkie with ADD coming off a bender. He riffs a mile a minute, often to himself, as if he’s waiting for us to realize that he’s really the star. It’s a shockingly selfish performance. After Legizamo, the otherwise talented Maria Bello flounders most as Hawke’s gorgeous psychiatrist who, it turns out, is far more screwed up than he. Every one of her lines sounds like she’s reading it off a cue card in her head. There is a self-consciousness to her performance that suggests even she is having a hard time believing the words coming out of her mouth.
But the most far reaching change between the original and the remake is that instead the situation being triggered by events that have nothing whatsoever to do with those trapped inside, this siege has everything to do with them. It’s goal: kill Marion Bishop and anyone he may have talked to. It is not waged by suicidal gang members, something that I think would have far more resonance today than it did in 1976. Instead, although far more deadly, these are high level assailants with every imaginable weapon at their disposal, but they lack the one component that made the original so terrifying: these men don’t want to die.
Granted, they had to be a little more sophisticated than the 1976 versions, given the invention of cellphones, pagers and cable modems that now have to be neutralized. But where zombies are incapable of giving up, bad cops can always turn state’s evidence and cop a plea. This completely dissipates the utter slam bang relentlessness that drove the story forward, and gave resonance to the courage of those trapped inside.
But wait, it gets worse. You’d think that given all the exposition, the tortured set up, the psychobabble, the scenes where the prisoners and the cops actually bond and find common ground, that the plot would at least make sense.
The biggest problem with this remake is the overall concept lacks the logic the original carefully constructed. The battle simply rages for hours as if there was no outside world to get suspicious. No one accidentally happens into the vicinity. No one wonders where all the cops and fire power have disappeared to. There’s a blizzard, and it is New Year’s Eve, so you would assume that there has to be some trouble somewhere in all of Detroit that would require their services.
I guess not.
And so, with no ticking clock other than, well, the actual passage of time, the energy begins to wane. The biggest let down comes when, after much hand wringing as to whether the AV-5’s will arrive in time to, we imagine, to obliterate the precinct, several helicopters come into view and a few guys parachute onto the roof. But wait, isn’t it a two story building? Couldn’t they have found a ladder or something? I mean, they had all night. Maybe an open Home Depot? Ah, never mind.
And finally a word about franchises. John Carpenter gave us one of the most enduring. In fact, he’s currently at work on Halloween 9. But ask him if he envisioned Assault on Precinct 13 as a franchise and I’m betting he’d just stare at you, trying to figure out a nice way to ask if you’re nuts.
In its 1976 incarnation, it is a complete thought. A perfect story. In the current version? Let me put it this way, imagine what you’d think of Clarice Starling if, at the end of Silence of the Lambs, having just watched Hannibal Lecter dash around a corner, she tells her fellow FBI agents that she hasn’t seen anyone suspicious around. Because, you see, it’s now personal. She wants to be the one to track him down, regardless of how many people he dines on in the meantime. What kind of a hero is that you ask? A very self-indulgent one, I think.