Revisiting the Reviled: Assault on Precinct 13 Unleashed an Assault on the Legacy of John Carpenter

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Did you know that before he was the writer-director of The Purge films, James DeMonaco was the co-writer on one of the lowest points in the career of Francis Ford Coppola? Well, the man behind The Purge got his big break penning Jack, the movie where Robin Williams plays a 50-year-old teenager. In 2005, DeMonaco was hired to script the remake of Assault on Precinct 13, one of the early works of John Carpenter. Released in the middle of Carpenter’s decade of inactivity – his only films of the 21st Century being 2001’s Ghosts of Mars and 2010’s The Ward – the Assault remake started an onslaught of Carpenter remakes. Let me be clear: I’m not against remakes. One of Carpenter’s finest films, The Thing, was a remake, and I tend to cite it as an example as to why remakes aren’t always a bad idea. After Assault there was the 2005 remake of The Fog and the 2007 Halloween remake – each film inferior and unnecessary – and a remake of Escape from New York has long been rumored.

Carpenter’s film was, like much of his other works, very much in the vein of Howard Hawks, Assault being like a minimalist Rio Bravo. In the midst of a violent siege on a police station, cops and criminals team up in order to save themselves from the wrath of an ultra-violent street gang. In the original the gang members are all but anonymous, rarely speaking, only killing. The remake dispatches with the gang element, replacing them with crooked cops intent on killing a convict who may testify against them. This is one of many departures from the original. Normally, I’d welcome these changes, however, the alterations undermine the finished product, relieving the film of its necessary tension.

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Dennehy’s Gun

Like Chekhov’s Gun – if a gun appears in the first act, it must be fired by the third act – if a corrupt cop is introduced, it means that there will be a betrayal later in the film. In this particular case, the corrupt cop presents all kinds of logical problems to this film. For example, why would a corrupt cop in the station during the siege not just kill the target? Why would he stand by watching all these people surrounding him needlessly die when he could’ve simply ended it? The only reason that doesn’t happen is because then there wouldn’t be a movie. Even more confusing, the prison transport that takes the prisoners to Precinct 13 is there by accident. How in the world could this army of crooked cops know that their target would be there? The film is more interested in exploring the unnecessary backstory of these characters than to pay attention to details like these. Oh yeah, why is there a lone female prisoner? Did I miss the part where we have a co-ed prison system?

Instead of the simplicity of the first film, DeMonaco’s script goes heavy on backstory. In the opening scene, Sergeant Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke) is undercover as skeezy drug addict. The sting goes bad, resulting in the deaths of two officers. So now, of course, Roenick is a closeted alcoholic and pill head desperate to dodge all responsibility. Due to all these problems Roenick is forced to see the police psychiatrist, Dr. Alex Sabian (Maria Bello). Roenick’s story is a veritable cornucopia of police film clichés. The same is true for Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), the target of the crooked cops. A brutal crimelord notorious for his lethal dealings, Bishop is arrested for killing an undercover cop who also happens to be a corrupt cop.

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Star Trek Psychologist

One thing this unnecessary remakes boasts is an impressive cast. While Hawke and Fishburne headline the film, the cast is rounded out with various character actors. As the head of the corrupt police squad is Gabriel Byrne, the grizzled Irish actor from Miller’s Crossing and The Usual Suspects. Brian Dennehy plays the old veteran police officer passing the time before his retirement. Dorian Harewood and Kim Coates play the sacrificial prison guards. Rounding out the convict lineup is Ja Rule and Luigi himself, John Leguizamo.

The lone American film for French director Jean-François Richet, Assault on Precinct 13 is surprisingly well shot. On a few occasions, though, Richet lets his style be taken over by the shaky cam of chaos cinema. The film’s greatest problem is its lackluster script rife with tired clichés, and the fact that it’s placed in the shadow of cult classic. I know that Assault on Precinct 13 doesn’t fit the usually rigid criteria for Revisiting the Reviled, but I consider Carpenter the ultimate geek filmmaker. Having made legitimate classics in the horror, sci-fi, and action genres, Carpenter is possibly the greatest genre filmmaker in history. DeMonaco’s affection for Carpenter isn’t exactly hidden. His most recent film, The Purge: Anarchy, borrows heavily from Carpenter right down the synthesized soundtrack.

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Assault on Precinct 13 isn’t a bad movie, nor is it a particularly good one. Even with its significant changes to the source material, the film never seems to find its own identity. You kind of have to respect the audacity of a movie so intent on telling inconsequential backstory and incapable of providing details relevant to the story – the film takes place on the outskirts of Detroit and features a climactic chase and shootout in a forest. I mean, where in the hell did that forest suddenly come from? The film concludes by teasing a sequel that’ll never happen. Definitely not the worst of the Carpenter remakes – ahem, The FogAssault serves as reminder to Carpenter’s singular greatness. Often imitated, never equaled.

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