Hollywood has drawn material from the same well so often that films are no longer being remade but instead updated for audiences too distracted and jaded to comprehend pre-1990 sensibilities. Remaking a film at one point implied a marginal interest in upholding the quality of the original. Updating now implicates a divergence from the source, an obligatory remedy to the material’s inopportune prehistoric qualities. Far from signaling a superior understanding of cinema history, this adjustment in conventional terminology suggests filmmakers looking to escape the pressures of living down the texts they bastardize.
Case in point: Assault on Precinct 13, a new “update” of John Carpenter’s 1976 genre classic that takes upon itself the burden of integrating every leaden cliché and token distraction that Carpenter wisely left out. As a stand-alone exercise it is watchable if scarcely effective, an uninspired action movie byproduct that will satisfy undiscriminating genre fans while seeming forgettable to others who cross its path. But when considered as a revision of Carpenter’s early-career tour de force, it becomes a textbook example of why the odds of finding a good genre film are currently about equal to those of winning the lottery. The very elements that have elevated great genre films—the equation of style and attitude, the economy of character and plot—are determined no longer purposeful but instead as oversights in need of renovation.
Carpenter’s version, made two years before his breakthrough hit Halloween, is an ultra-low-budget B movie that makes up in showmanship what it lacks in spectacle. Influenced by the central concept of Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo, it is less interested in replicating the events of that seminal western than in revitalizing the muscular, resilient methodology of Hawks’s scenario. Set in the bowels of scorched Los Angeles gang territory, it is an abrupt, ascetically violent thriller that finds a black rookie cop and a white death-row criminal defending an abandoned police station against the siege of an urban army whose motives are unknown to them. It is a terrifying, if not particularly innovative scenario, and the menacing clarity of Carpenter’s widescreen images and throbbing Casio-keyboard score help distinguish it from lesser efforts. Yet what decisively sets the film apart is its breathtaking independence from narrative mass. Carpenter doesn’t waste time providing cheap background sketches for his characters or tying every plot point into a neat little bow; the enemy is a seething, mostly faceless swarm without a line of dialogue to rationalize their actions. The film is so intimately focused that it barely leaves room to breathe, much less delve into gratuitous expository details. Gripes one might have with the material’s informality are blown away by the lucidity found in Carpenter’s crafting of such.
This new Precinct 13 is determined to seal off such perceived gaps while trading Carpenter’s precision for conservative blandness. It is essentially the same song—the siege of a run-down police station—only the words and melody have changed completely. Set in snowy, nondescript Detroit, our hero is Sergeant Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke), who in prologue loses two undercover partners in a drug deal gone bad and thus must suffer an addiction to painkillers and guilt (not to mention the obligatory love interest, a pesky psychiatrist played by Maria Bello). His apprehensive ally is Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), an enigmatic drug czar who contentedly does crossword puzzles and references Greek philosophy when not knifing enemies in the neck. The most dramatic upgrade, however, makes Bishop the movie’s fulcrum: The original film’s marauding gangs have been replaced by vengeful über-police in cahoots with the gangster, who desire him dead as to prevent him from incriminating them as accomplices. Incidental targets include an aged cop on the verge of retirement (Brian Dennehy), an uninhibited secretary whose sole conversational topic is her sex life (a struggling Drea de Matteo), and a paranoid junkie (John Leguizamo, who just doesn’t have an excuse).
It is not these additions, however pale and insipid, that irrevocably cripple Precinct 13. Carpenter, after all, was successfully able to navigate major temporal alterations to Hawks’s original concept while remaining faithful in spirit. It is the divergence in temperament that separates contender from pretender. Carpenter steadily boiled his movie down to the characters’ determination to survive events inflicted upon them by chance, a slowly evolving metaphor of a greater struggle taken from a singular, unifying battle that imparts not just plot momentum but emotional conviction. The new film, 20 minutes longer than the original, is portentously awash in cynical confusion and narcissistic pity that impair its ability to maintain a center of gravity. Roenick the cop, anguished by his failed bust, is so absorbed by the predicament of his own uncertainty that he expresses not a moment of distress over the deaths of those he is sworn to protect, while Bishop the criminal incessantly reiterates that he cares only about saving his own ass, sincere apologies to anyone who gets in his way. Gabriel Byrne, as the leader of the swat team attacking Precinct 13, is laughably afforded a moment to consider the imminent murder of several innocent people before announcing, “I can live with that,” if it means avoiding incarceration.
As proxy for worthwhile drama, the film offers generous amounts of fastidious racial pandering. The issue of race was an acknowledged part of Carpenter’s landscape that became pointedly obscured by the film’s critical mood of unease. That’s hardly a radical conceit but it appears fresh compared to the new Precinct 13, which exploits convenient biases whenever the shooting stops in a seeming attempt to flatter the urban audience it courts. Substituting cops for street gangs as primary villain is a clear concession to widespread distrust of law enforcement, handily equipped with reminders that the white cops (at one point referred to by a black character as “government sanctioned thugs”) are executing innocents while Bishop agreeably kills only in self-defense. Mexican standoffs abound between some black and Hispanic prisoners (Ja Rule, Leguizamo) and ancient Irish cop Old School (Dennehy), whose prevalent desire to throw Bishop to the wolves inevitably confirms his innate racist tendencies. De Matteo’s sexpot secretary goes one step further in intuiting the white characters’ prejudice by reminding them that, “I don’t bed criminals, I fuck bad boys.” Even the casting of the two lead roles reverses Carpenter’s vision. Imagine this new film with Hawke and Fishburne playing each other’s part and it becomes apparent to what degree the deck has been stacked.
What else would you expect from a director who has spent more time producing rap albums than he has making movies? Jean-Francois Richet demonstrates little sensibility beyond a curiously fetishistic obsession with oozing gunshot wounds to the head. The film’s opening scene depicting Roenick’s downfall, with its hand-held, jump-cut anxiety as the cop bullshits his way into calamity, has an energy to it that catches you off guard. But after the main title rolls and the boredom commences you find yourself in the too-comfortable presence of a director without personality—the exact opposite of Carpenter who, for his array of shortcomings (inability to successfully build to a satisfying climax, for one) displayed in Precinct 13 and throughout his entire career, is a filmmaker who puts forth a vision unto itself. That may be the ultimate pleasure of the original. It’s a movie from a filmmaker whose understanding of his material is instinctual—it flows naturally, without hesitation or confliction, with every line, every actor, every shot in communion with the ideal. The new film impresses only as indifferent product, exactly what genre films become in the hands of those who don’t understand them. It is less about an assault on Precinct 13 than an assault on itself.