Review Date: May 15, 2005
Released by: Universal
Release date: 5/10/2005
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 2.40:1 | 16x9: Yes
Amidst the onslaught of recent high profile remakes like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
and Dawn of the Dead
, many angry fans are expressing their discontent. “Why don’t they remake bad films and leave the good ones alone?” is the argument du jour, and while it does have its merits, it ultimately negates the commercial side of filmmaking. There is a reason that Dawn
are being remade, their names alone will put people into the seats. Nobody is going to want to pay to see a remake of Deep Star Six
or Vampire in Brooklyn
, because most people don’t know about them, and for those that do, why would they want to risk wasting their money a second time? Now granted, there are some exceptions, like The Amityville Horror
remake, but generally, the only economically viable large scale remakes are those that are from an already bankable name.
It was, thus, only an inevitability before my favorite film of all time, John Carpenter’s siege masterpiece Assault on Precinct 13
, found itself in the remake crosshairs. While the film may not qualify as a “known” classic, it has its share of followers, and the title alone is a sizzler. Whether or not the audience has seen the original is no matter though, because Assault
, like the Dawn
remakes, bares only surface similarities to the original film. So how does this devout fan of Carpenter’s original like the remake? Quite a bit, and here’s why:
Whereas the original film began with a siege on the villains, this remake begins with a siege on the protagonist. Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke
) is a cop on the edge. Although undercover, he has very much become a part of the drug world he is attempting to narc. He tries to sell a score, but the transaction goes bad when the buyers recognize one of Roenick’s partners as a cop. Both Roenick’s partner and his lover are killed in the altercation, leaving him with a bum knee and a guilty conscience. This guilt leads him to accept safer jobs behind a desk, but one is never lucky when their precinct number is “13”.
It is New Year’s Eve, more than five years after Roenick’s past misfire, and he and his squadron are celebrating their last night in the run down police station. Iris Ferry (Drea de Matteo
), the sultry secretary with a taste for bad boys, hangs up streamers, while Jasper O’Shea (Brian Dennehy
), the veteran officer, celebrates his last days on the force before retirement. Also joining them is Alex Sabian (Maria Bello
), Roenick’s psychiatrist who more than enjoys the sexually charged banter the two share. With everything boxed up and put away, the group prepare to relax and enjoy the new year. Enter Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne
), who has just been arrested for killing a cop. He, and a rag tag group of other felons, are being transferred to a higher security facility, but the weather has other plans for them. A stormy blizzard finds the bus seeking refuge under Precinct 13’s roof, forcing Roenick and his bunch to put in a little bit of overtime before the ball drops.
Of course, as luck would have it, Bishop is a wanted man, and within moments of being caged in the precinct, masked gunmen attempt to get him out. At first it seems that these are Bishop’s own men, but it becomes clear that somebody else is behind this. The masked men are outfitted with the newest and most elaborate technologies, and all seem highly skilled in combat and weaponry. They are not mere cons themselves, instead they are police officers no different than Roenick and Co. They are all under the command of one of Detroit’s most esteemed officers, Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne
). It is clear that Duvall has an outstanding score with Bishop, but what is it and more importantly, who will live to find out? Both prisoner and police officer, banded together, wait inside Precinct 13, armed and ready to fight for their life against the outside intruders. Happy New Year, indeed.
Although different in both story and outlook, the new Assault
possesses all of the ingredients that made Carpenter’s original a masterpiece of its genre. Both films excel in characterization, taking the time out of the gate to give each precinct member, from the cops to the crooks, likable character traits. Iris has a sharp tongue and a sexual proclivity for prisoners, Alex is a psychiatrist with her own set of neuroses, Beck (John Leguizamo
) is always spinning conspiracy theory stories about the cops, Smiley (Ja Rule
) likes to address himself from the third person and Rosen (Aisha Hinds
) is a tough-as-nails prisoner who can more than hold her weight with the boys. Each character is human and full of complications, and James DeMonaco’s script is always utilizing these traits to add further dynamics to the story. His writing would be nothing without the cast, and behind all the characters is a excellent bunch of quality character actors, from Dennehy all the way down to Leguizamo.
As good as the supporting characters are in both films, it is the dynamic between the cop and the prisoner that really gives the films their heart. Darwin Joston’s Napoleon Wilson in the original film was full of wit and bolstered by legend. He was larger than life, and DeManco does a good job at giving Fishburne the same sort of mystique. “Is it true you got shot 5 times?” Iris asks Bishop. “Six.” He responds. Bishop has apparently also pulled out a man’s spine, not to mention taken the lives of countless other men. Fishburne gives his character a schooled and square-jawed confidence, big on legend and short on words. Hawke’s character is much edgier than the Austin Stoker’s cop character of the first film, but he is still one raised by the book and one of morals. Fishburne and Hawke have a chemistry similar to Stoker and Joston, and seeing the two different personalities play off each other is where the film is at its most electric.
Carpenter’s original will be remembered for all its daring, whether it is the vicious bloodletting of the unrelenting gang or the shocking on screen death of a small child, and thankfully, so will Jean-Francois Richet’s remake. While revealing the remake’s twists would remove their impact, let’s just say that nobody is safe in Richet’s universe, and that gives the film a non-stop feeling of unpredictability. Like all great genre films, the new Assault on Precinct 13
isn’t afraid to take risks. It does away with the cliché and mixes things up just enough to make an old genre seem fresh again. In a time where most films are moving towards the teen friendly PG-13 rating, it is also refreshing to see Assault
deliver a big bloody R. There are headshots galore in this picture, with bullets literally exploding through the backs of heads. There are also several stabbing scenes with a frankness that is wince-inducing. You know you are in unrestrained territory when a dog gets punched in the face in the first scene of the picture. The new Assault
has balls, and that is a rarity for a Hollywood film these days.
Speaking of balls, it is also worth mentioning how strong-willed all three female characters in the film are. Carpenter’s female lead in the original was a rarity at the time: a tough, independent woman, when the ladies in most genre films were hired to act vulnerable and take off their tops. As much as times have changed, the roles for women in genre films generally have not: they are still made to scream, take off their tops, and let the men rescue them, in whatever order. How refreshing, then, that the three women in this picture (Bello, De Matteo and Hinds) are all more than capable of matching the men both mentally and physically. Hinds’ character makes the other male inmates seem like sissies, and she can shoot a gun and hotwire a car just as good as the rest of them. De Matteo’s character is made to interact with the two male leads throughout, and she more than matches their tough guy witticisms with her own leering dialogue. Bello’s character, despite her neuroses and fright, emerges as the strongest character of all, able to hold her own against Detroit’s toughest police officer. The three women are all great, and it is nice to see that for once in a genre movie there is no urge to fall back on the typical vulnerable female character. Even Carpenter’s original couldn’t avoid that pratfall.
It is finally interesting to note also the different outlook that both Assaults ultimately convey at the end of the picture. The original is a nostalgic ode to the western, and it is saddled with the storybook virtues of camaraderie and riding off into the sunset. After a long fought battle, policeman and prisoner are able to put aside their differences and embrace an acceptance of differences both in terms of status and race. While this was a nice notion in the Hawksian westerns of the time, and even in the liberal fallout of the seventies, such optimism can only seem naïve in today’s cynical times. Fishburne and Hawke don’t set aside their differences and become friends at the end of the picture. Instead, they end up right where they started, both realizing their position in society and their desire to separate themselves from one another. Human’s don’t change, this picture asserts, they only adapt themselves to specific circumstances in order to survive. It is a far less upbeat outlook on life, but one that seems more natural in today’s dog-eat-dog world.
So while the remake possesses many of the admirable traits of the original, namely good characterization, strong female characters and a propensity to shock, it also has a darker edge that sets it apart from Carpenter’s happy Western ideals. While Carpenter’s film is still a much better picture than Richet’s, with its tighter plotting, sharper dialogue and more menacing villains, Richet’s is still a film to be respected. Its got everything a genre fan would want and more, which is somewhat ironic given its paltry take at the box office earlier this year. Genre fans continue to complain verbatim over the lack of good genre films in theaters these days, and yet, when a solid genre film like Assault
finally does come around, it is utterly ignored. Carpenter’s film was ignored in its initial release too though, so hopefully the remake will gather a larger following on various other outlets as well. It is a film that is more than deserving.
In theaters, Assault
was beautiful, with its deep blue hues and forest photography, and it looks just as good here on DVD. The 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer accurately preserves the blue hues found throughout the last half of the film, and the deep whites of the snow look very clean and bright. Although the film is shot on a slightly grainier film stock to give it a grittier seventies feel, it is still extremely sharp and clear of all blemishes. Colors were corrected for the first part of the film, and each alteration has a unique look that demonstrates the depth of this transfer. It is tough to complain about anything in this transfer.
Presented in either DTS or Dolby Digital 5.1, this soundtrack is an assault on the ears. This is one of the most active soundtracks I’ve heard in a long time, the speakers get a major workout in all directions. The gunshots are fast and furious throughout, and they come whizzing by from all directions and with considerable punch. I found myself turning down the sound during some of the action scenes, as it was that intense. Every little effect comes through wonderfully rich and clear though, from the subtleties of the blizzard wind to the slamming of Roenick’s door. There is a great deal of separation too, as sounds sweep from the left to the right quite often in the picture. Lastly, Graeme Revell’s orchestral score has a considerable amount of depth over Carpenter’s legendary three-note synth original, and it really livens the entire track. This is a flawless sound mix, and one of the best you are likely to hear on a genre film. Great work, Rogue.
The packaging for this film is interesting, in that some of the biggest supplements are not even mentioned on the back. The longest featurette, “Caught in the Crosshairs”, is not mentioned, nor are the commentaries on both the deleted scenes and the feature itself. Instead the focus is on the other featurettes, but it should be known now that the supplements not listed are the ones that are the best. The commentary is a lively one, with Director Jean-Francois Richet, Writer James DeMarco and Producer Jeffrey Silver. Richet has an accent thicker than French bread, but thankfully DeMarco and Silver help clarify any miscommunications and they also elaborate on many of his truncated points. The track is very informative, in that they explain behind-the-scenes material as well as character motivations, but it is also very funny. Richet is not quiet in his attraction to Drea De Matteo, at one point even yelling out “I love sexy women!” Ahh, the French. But DeMarco is a very smart and literate guy, and it is nice to hear him point out various homages to other films and it is clear that he is a lover of film. Nothing beats a Carpenter commentary, but like the movie itself, this is a solid replacement.
“Caught in the Crosshairs” is the longest featurette at 12 minutes, and it is the only one to feature participation from the actors. The actors basically just talk of character motivations and focus on selling the picture. DeManaco, Richet and Silver also participate on this, as well as the rest of the featurettes, giving a good window into the behind-the-scenes aspects of the film. The overall featurette is more promotional in nature than the rest of them, but it is nice to see many of the participants recognize John Carpenter’s original film right from the gate. Ja Rule says that the remake is better, I say it isn’t, and I’ll leave you to decide who to believe.
The other featurettes are shorter and more focused, and all have their little pluses. “The Assault
Team” is basically just Richet, DeManaco and Silver explaining how the film came to be and how they all had to deal with Richet’s language barriers. Since Richet could barely speak English at all, cast and crew needed to find different ways to communicate, which led to a different environment than most Hollywood movies. “Armed & Dangerous” is another 5 minute featurette, this time with an arms specialist describing all the guns used in the film. It is interesting on how Richet wanted each gun to be representative of the character using it, but otherwise this is somewhat tedious unless you are a gun fanatic. “Behind the Precinct Walls” is 7 minutes, and is a very interesting tour around the set by the art director. Included are behind-the-scenes video footage of the set, computer renderings, still photographs and cuts from the movie, all showing how complex set design can be. Although it doesn’t sound all that interesting, it makes for a good little featurette, and its probably the best on the disc. The last supplement is “Plan of Attack”, running 4 minutes and dealing with the stunts in a fairly matter-of-fact manner. All in all, most of the featurettes are fairly forgettable, but they do pass the time.
The deleted scenes are much better, and run about 6 minutes long. In all there are 5 scenes, and each one is good on its own, adding further depth to each character included. Most deleted scenes extras are just extensions of scenes already in the film, alternate takes or incredibly short little blurbs, but the 5 scenes here are all unique and considerably more substantial. Each would fit fine in the film, and as Richet mentions on the commentary (which can be turned on or off for all the deleted scenes) is that they were all cut to keep the film down to an already robust 109 minutes. There are great moments between Dennehy and Fishburne, Fishburne and De Matteo, but best of all is a monologue by Gabriel Byrne. Byrne’s monologue describes his dilemma, and really personalizes his character, and without his scene in the film, his character seems a little generic. A very good bunch of deleted scenes.
Lastly, the disc has previews that play upon DVD insertion. The first is a theatrical trailer for Unleashed
, and the next two are quick previews for the Seed of Chucky
and White Noise
DVDs. The Seed of Chucky
one is good for a laugh, as it features, at least by name, Freddy and Jason. No trailer for Assault on Precinct 13
is on this disc, just like there was no trailer for Dawn of the Dead
on Universal’s Dawn
remake. It is all for the better though, because the trailer for Assault on Precinct 13
was so generic that it totally made the film look like derivative pap. It is a trailer better left forgotten. Overall, while the featurettes might not be all that memorable, the commentary and deleted scenes are.
Assault on Precinct 13
is a solid genre film with a strong cast of characters and an unpredictable edge, which were both qualities that made Carpenter’s film great to begin with. Bolstering an unflinching R-rating, it is everything a genre film should be. The transfer is great for all the senses, with crisp video and a very forceful sound mix. There are a number of extras, but the commentary and deleted scenes are the only ones really worth recommending. This is a film that genre fans ignored in theaters, and hopefully everyone who ignored it initially will give it a second chance on DVD. 13
deserves better luck than its had at the box office, it’s a solid flick.
Movie - B+
Image Quality - A-
Sound - A
Supplements - B+
- Running time - 1 hour 49 minutes
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English DTS 5.1
- English Dolby Digital 5.1
- English Dolby Surround
- English captioning
- Spanish subtitles
- French subtitles
- Commentary with Director Jean-Francois Richet, Writer James DeMonaco and Producer Jeffrey Silver
- "Caught in the Crosshairs" featurette
- "Armed and Dangerous" featurette
- "Behind Precinct Walls" featurette
- "The Assault Team" featurette
- "Plan of Attack" featurette
- Deleted scenes with optional commentary by Director Jean-Francois Richet
- Previews for Unleashed, Seed of Chucky, and White Noise