"Assault on Precinct 13" does a good job of grabbing you by the throat right at the beginning. We see a wired junkie babbling desperately into the camera. There's a girl nodding off on a couch nearby. The junkie is trying to reason with a pair of nasty-looking and heavily armed Serbian drug dealers, who are just barely restraining their scary-vicious attack dog. He is clearly failing to win their trust, and within moments the drug deal goes wildly, explosively wrong. With its whirling camera work and rough, stuttery editing, this scene sets you up for a pummeling urban crime thriller. How thrillingly pummeled you'll actually feel after having seen it, however, may depend to some extent on your familiarity with the movie's cinematic antecedents.
The original "Assault on Precinct 13," released in 1976, is director John Carpenter's tribute to Howard Hawks, and to that director's famous 1959 western, "Rio Bravo." The plots of the two pictures are virtually identical: A small group of good guys is holding one very bad guy in a not-very-secure jail. Outside, a large group of even badder guys has laid siege to the lockup, determined to spring the lowlife within. Tension mounts, violence escalates; hopelessness puts in an appearance.
Carpenter's movie, which relocated Hawks' story from Wild West Texas to one of the grottier precincts of Los Angeles, and transformed his pack of hired gunslingers into heat-packing gang members, was an exercise in pure action; the characters were largely perfunctory. Over the years, the movie has become a genre touchstone for younger filmmakers, and now has inspired one of them, the 38-year-old French director Jean-Francois Richet, to remake it. Exactly why he's done this is a question not answered by the resulting movie.
Richet has transferred his "Assault on Precinct 13" from Los Angeles to Detroit. It's December 31st, and a paralyzing snowstorm has struck the city. A master criminal, Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), arrested early in the day after a startlingly nasty murder in a church, is being transported to prison in a police bus along with a group of lesser lawbreakers: a jittery drug addict named Beck (John Leguizamo, in one of his more measured comic performances), a street hustler called Smiley (Ja Rule at his most winning) and an ornery gang girl named Anna (Aisha Hinds). The snow becomes so heavy that the bus is forced to turn off along the way and seek shelter at Precinct 13, an old, dilapidated station house that's about to be closed down. Inside, Sergeant Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke) is working his last shift there along with a crusty veteran named O'Shea (Brian Dennehy) and a frankly hot-to-trot secretary named Iris (Drea de Matteo). Also on the premises is a visiting police psychologist (Maria Bello), who has stopped by to check on the whiskey-fueled Jake, a man still seriously troubled by his part in a botched undercover operation five years earlier.
With Bishop and the other miscreants herded into cells, Jake and his colleagues are having a few desultory New Year's Eve drinks when the first team of bad guys strikes. As it transpires, there's a whole bunch of them outside, bristling with lethal hardware, and they want Bishop. Bishop, however, knows why they want him (it's not for a group-hug), and he agrees to help Jake repel their assault. The other three arrestees, with predictably mixed motives, agree to join in.
A lot of mayhem follows, of course. This movie isn't as relentless as the original film, but there's some tense sniper action, and there are two jarringly unexpected executions. Richet knows how to stage action scenes — his technique is both sleek and gritty, and he can catch you by surprise. (There's also an effective script-twist: The bad guys turn out not to be the gang-bangers the good guys initially assumed.)
But the cast is problematic. Maria Bello, such a substantial presence in movies like "Auto Focus" and "The Cooler," is oddly ditzy here (especially for a professional woman of the sort her character is supposed to be). Her performance doesn't seem to belong in the same movie with those of Hawke, with his nuanced naturalism, and Dennehy, with his old-school tough-guy bluster. (Actually, these two actors don't seem to belong in the same picture, either.) In addition, Laurence Fishburne, a warmly appealing performer, is hard to accept as a menacing heavy. (He also wasn't particularly fearsome as Ike Turner in the 1993 "What's Love Got to Do With It.") And as the head bad guy, Gabriel Byrne, another fine actor, isn't given much to do beyond stone-faced muttering as he mopes about, stage-managing various evil machinations. His character is too vaguely sketched to hold our interest.
There are some nagging plot improbabilities, too. Even after we learn the attackers' true identities, it's hard to swallow the ease with which they're able amass so much high-tech firepower (they even rustle up an assault helicopter) without calling all kinds of official attention to themselves. And the sizable forest that materializes toward the end of the picture seems to come literally out of nowhere — are we suddenly not in Detroit anymore?
The central problem with this new "Assault on Precinct 13," however, is its essential uselessness. The picture bangs right along; it does its job, I guess. But the job was already done a lot better a long time ago. Director Richet has made an okay-but-undistinguished action flick. John Carpenter, in relative terms, made a great one.