Assault on Precinct 13

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“Assault on Precinct 13” is a thick, serious movie with foul-mouthed police officers, an old Irish cop who’s about to retire, bad guys with unlimited resources, and a cop who’s been haunted ever since he saw two of his team members die during a mission that went wrong. It is, in other words, composed of the same ingredients as every other movie of its genre. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, only that it’s not original.

Technically, it had no hope of being “original” anyway, since it’s a remake of a 1976 film that was itself a modernized version of “Rio Bravo” anyway. Indeed, the story of police officers who must join forces with criminals in order to fight off the murderous rogue cops who lurk outside the stationhouse is as old as drama itself, having first appeared in the works of Sophocles, Euripedes and … oh, I’m full of crap, don’t listen to me.

The time is New Year’s Eve, the place is Detroit. Venerable old Precinct 13 is closing down and all its cops are moving to a new building elsewhere in the district. On this final night of Precinct 13’s existence, only three employees remain: young Sgt. Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke), old alcoholic officer Jasper O’Shea (Brian Dennehy) and a slutty receptionist named Iris (Drea de Matteo). Roenick has been neurotically hiding behind a desk since two of his partners died in a bust eight months earlier, and O’Shea is retiring soon and drinking immediately. All three have resigned themselves to a dull New Year’s Eve at a defunct police station, basically just keeping an eye on the place for one last night.

Meanwhile, a cop-killing crime lord named Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne) has been arrested and is being transported with three petty criminals when a vicious snowstorm forces the bus to make a pit stop at Precinct 13. The instructions are to camp there for the night — the prisoners in the holding cells, of course, which still work just fine — and continue once the storm has passed.

The storm also forces Roenick’s very hot department-appointed psychiatrist Alex Sabien (Maria Bello) back inside, primarily so the movie can give Roenick a love interest, since Iris is too skanky.

Then all hell breaks loose. A squadron of masked men storm the precinct and are only barely repelled by Roenick and company. Everyone assumes it is Bishop’s men, there to free their leader, but the truth is soon revealed: They are dirty cops with whom Bishop used to have an arrangement, and who will be exposed if Bishop makes it to court on Monday. Led by the ashen-faced Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne), they are there to kill Bishop and anyone else who gets in the way.

From that point, the film is not unlike any of your standard zombie movies, in that a motley group of strangers barricade themselves inside a building and fend off the evil fiends outside, who make occasional attempts at getting inside again, much like the Big Bad Wolf. Roenick reluctantly realizes he needs the help of the prisoners (who include John Leguizamo and Ja Rule) in fighting back the bad cops, and an uneasy truce between law enforcement and the criminal element is reached, just for tonight, just to stay alive.

I question the logistics of Marcus Duvall’s mission. Despite not knowing in advance that Bishop would be in Precinct 13 for the night — indeed, not even knowing Bishop was in police custody until this afternoon — he has managed to assemble a team of at least 20 well-armed, highly trained men to do his bidding and assassinate Bishop. What, no one had plans tonight? And the armory was unguarded, and no one’s going to miss all the vehicles and weapons they took?

As far as we know, the masked men involved are all police officers, too, apparently the ones involved in Bishop and Duvall’s big crime ring. How do they think they’re going to get away with it? Where are they going to tell their wives and girlfriends they were all New Year’s Eve? Won’t it seem suspicious that 20 cops are unaccounted for on the same night that everyone at Precinct 13 was murdered? And even if Bishop winds up dead, won’t his surviving henchmen and lieutenants figure it must have been the cops who did it and blow the whistle on them? This is one of the stupidest missions ever embarked upon. It was doomed from the start.

Director Jean-Francois Richet, making his English-language debut, demonstrates a fondness for showing people lying dead while blood trickles from bulletholes in their foreheads. (I counted at least four such moments.) He’s keen on violence in general, in fact; this is a often a stark, jarring movie, rife with violent images and harsh profanity.

Laurence Fishburne is in Morpheus mode, as sonorous and calm as ever, adding a bit of coolness to the film’s hot-headed proceedings. Ethan Hawke isn’t exactly doing his finest work, but eh, whatever. The movie itself isn’t really doing its finest work, either, ticking off clichés as fast as it fires bullets. But it keeps a steady pace and provides some escapist entertainment, insofar as seeing people try to kill each other constitutes “escapism.” What would you be escaping from? Pleasantness?

C+ (1 hr., 49 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, abundant strong violence.)

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