We’re told as Assault on Precinct 13 opens that this is “A Why Not Production,” which pretty much sums up the attitude behind the endeavor: “Why Not steal the title of an old cult favorite and slap it on a shoddy, contrived action movie and pretend it’s a remake? Who’s gonna stop us? You?”
No, you will be the bitch of the Why Not people, lured into the movie theater by a trailer that’s more exciting and more coherent than the film itself is. And even having paid your $10, you will sit there and wonder, “Why Not just walk out?”
I say, “Go for it,” because it all just keeps making less and less sense as it unspools. It also gets funnier, too, so that by the time Ethan Hawke has escaped the titular precinct under assault—come on, you knew he would—to chase a bad guy into the thick forest that has mysteriously materialized behind his Detroit police station, you’re gonna need the good guffaw that such a moment of cinematic boneheadedness provides.
Hopefully, John Carpenter banked a nice chunk of change for letting the Why Not people swipe his title and the barest skeleton of his concept. Potential new audiences may be turned off by his 1976 original if they think the two movies might have something in common besides a name. A police precinct is closing down, and on the last night before the shuttering, the few cops and civilian staffers holding down the fort come under siege from forces outside. There endeth the similarities. The cities are different (here it’s Detroit; in 1976 it was Los Angeles); the bad guys and their motivations couldn’t be more dissimilar. Most importantly, the tone and the attitudes about law and order, about filmed violence, and about what is thrilling and terrifying on film are a universe apart.
Actually, to ascribe deliberate tone and attitude to this new Precinct 13 is to give it more credit than it deserves. This is like a 10th-generation photo copy of Die Hard—blurry, fuzzy, just faintly hinting at the far-superior movies it’s trying to ape but succeeding only in eliciting scorn for its pretensions at being one-tenth as engaging. Like all such movies, this is R-rated death porn that isn’t even worthy of being labeled an “action movie.” It is brainless, by-the-numbers filmmaking that thinks it’s clever when it invents convoluted new ways to kill a character, but will settle for the standby of “riddled with bullets” when it can’t.
Of course, director Jean-François Richet and screenwriter James DeMonaco believe they’re being serious and intense. Hawke’s cop has issues—he’s still haunted by the deaths of his team eight months earlier in an undercover situation gone bad, and Hawke, no action hero, treats the role like his character is in some sort of extreme therapy session. Indeed, his therapist (a badly underutilized Maria Bello) manages to get caught up in the siege, allowing her to let him know how well he’s progressing.
All of which only compounds this problem: Precinct 13 is the kind of movie culture warriors look to when they complain that Hollywood has inured us to violence, not merely by depicting it, but by playing the bloody, drawn-out deaths of human beings as a mere diversion for a Friday night. That’s a tremendous slap in the face to Carpenter’s film, a nihilistic portrait of senseless, random violence that remains deeply shocking today for that very random senselessness. His Precinct 13 never fell into total despair by positing law enforcement, for all its tendencies toward corruption, as the bulwark that prevents our entire society from descending into brutality.
Here, though, lawlessness is institutional and endemic, even among Detroit’s police force. Laurence Fishburne’s cop-killing gangster, with whom Hawke’s cop is forced to team up to defend his precinct house, is a thoughtful philosopher, practically the hero of the film. The cops and the criminals are nearly indistinguishable, and Hawke is capable of a bleak kind of heroism that rejects convenient murder only because he has witnessed the deaths of people close to him. There is no morality here, only base practicality. Which is a complete perversion of the ethos of Carpenter’s film. A greater betrayal is hard to imagine—though not surprising from people who label themselves Why Not.
ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13