Assault on Precinct 13, remade from John Carpenter's breakout 1976 low-budget success, still functions as a down-and-dirty action potboiler. But the remake's image of the decript little precinct that could (overshadowed by glistening, high-tech Precinct 21) reflects poorly on the new film, and reminds of Carpenter's vital, gutsy film. Jean-François Richet's version lacks a palpable intensity, and its slick formula is incompatible with the camp value that makes Carpenter's films so endearing. The formula works, but this plays more like Die Hard 2 on a budget than a remake in spirit of Carpenter's scrappy original.
This time, the stars have come out to play. Ethan Hawke plays Jake Roenick, the police sergeant defending his rundown Motor City precinct from a small army that wants to get to Laurence Fishburne's crimelord. Caught in the crossfire (and the blizzard) are Maria Bello's sexy psychologist, John Leguizamo's high-flying junkie, Drea de Matteo's sardonic secretary, and veteran cops played by Gabriel Byrne and Brian Dennehy, among others (Ja Rule's inmate annoyingly refers to himself in the third person, as in "Smiley's scared"). Screenwriter James DeMonaco (The Negotiator) pads the lean plot with enough talk to add eighteen minutes to the original's running time. When Jake decides to stand up, Dennehy's character asks, "Why are you doing this, Jake? Nobody gives a shit anymore—about anything."
Perhaps the self-medicating sergeant is doing it because his shrink has convinced him that he's afraid of his own professional responsibility (the film's opening scene details a botched bust). As the standoff goes further south for the "white hats," Fishburne's cool operator offers, "Why don't you give me one of those guns? I'll help you fend off the black hats." With the promise that all bets are off in the end, a tentative truce is formed between the heroes and the hoods. The attempts to flesh out Carpenter's minimalist plot only point up the transparency of the characters. All we really know about Fishburne is that he's criminal and smart (he heedlessly does his crossword in church and invokes Eros and Thanatos during the siege); all we really know about Hawke is that he's got something to prove.
Amped up with ultraviolence and the occasional reach for Tarantinoid dialogue—and armed with a couple of twists—this is solid stuff for Hollywood's cold season. A cameo appearance by a tommy gun is the film's most obvious tip of the hat to Carpenter's campy sense of humor. Still, Richet, in his English-language debut, proves to have a poor sense of rhythm (action-retreat); the crisis seems to stop cold so Hawke and Bello can have a heart-to-heart talk. Richet also goes slowly enough to allow us to consider the plot's numerous implausibilities, such as a poor excuse used to dispatch cell-phone salvation. When the remake is so flavorless (as it so often is), it's time to hit the video shelves.