Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jean-François Richet

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, Maria Bello, Brian Dennehy, Gabriel Byrne, John Leguizamo, Drea de Matteo, Jeffrey "Ja Rule" Atkins, Aisha Hinds

MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence and language throughout, and for some drug content)

Running Time: 1:49

Release Date: 1/19/05

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Review by Mark Dujsik

If there's one thing that really grows irritating for a person if they watch enough movies, it's recognizing the facets of tired formulas. Screenwriters have come to rely on them so much, that to mention the appearance of clichés in a genre exercise is almost superfluous. If I were to make the general statement that a movie is full of cop movie clichés, you would most likely be able to decipher from that there's at least one of the following amongst others: 1.) A cop a day away from retirement who will not last to see his pension; 2.) a noble cop who fights corruption within the system while battling his own personal demons; and 3.) relatively harmless stock criminals who serve as an aid to the police and comic relief. Assault on Precinct 13 features all of these and more, but it actively modifies them to a point that number one is almost forgotten as the forthcoming retiree continues to breath, number two leads to an actual affinity for the hero, number three's components are disposed of before they becomes annoying, and numbers four through fifty-seven are tweaked so that there's a sense that almost anything could happen.

Eight months ago, Jake Roenick led a botched undercover operation that led to the deaths of his partners. Now, he works a desk job, drinks from a bottle in his drawer on his downtime, and takes painkillers for a wounded leg. New Year's Eve is the last day for his station Detroit's Precinct 13, and everyone working there will be moved to a more advanced house for the New Year. The same day, one of the city's most wanted crime lords Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne) kills a cop in a church and is subsequently arrested. Meanwhile, the remaining crew of Precinct 13, Roenick, secretary Iris (Drea de Matteo), and veteran officer Jasper (Brian Dennehy), hold down the fort and whittle away the time, with Roenick taking some time to talk with his department-mandated psychologist Alex (Maria Bello). In the meantime, Bishop is on his way to the new precinct, but the snowy weather is treacherous and a call on the radio leads the transport to hold up for the night at Precinct 13. This would all be normal, except for the fact that Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne) and some other officers in his division could go to jail for business dealings with Bishop if the gangster is allowed to testify.

That cannot happen, so he and his fellow corrupt partners set siege on the building. Outnumbered and outgunned, Roenick decides to take drastic action by recruiting Bishop and three other criminals in lockup to fight alongside them against the corrupt arm of the law outside. The prologue of Roenick's failed undercover operation sets the level of violence that will follow, as it climaxes with the graphic backside view of someone shot in the head, and there's enough blood and gore here to break down barriers of desensitization. An icicle to the eye, multiple gunshots to the head, and a samurai sword repeatedly to the torso are just a few of the grotesqueries on display, but if I sound critical, I'm not. The fact that the film has that level of shock value is, I suppose, itself an homage to John Carpenter, whose 1976 film this is a remake of. The film is not bloody killing after bloody killing, though, and director Jean-François Richet displays skillful craftsmanship, keeping us within the building for the most part and establishing the claustrophobic nightmare that ensues when trying to help a wounded guard across the room as dozens of laser sites slowly fill up the darkness.

This is more than a technical exercise of an extended action sequence as well, and screenwriter James DeMonaco plays with the formula and gives enough details of the characters to maintain interest and offer genuine surprises. Two of the crooks in custody Smiley (Jeffrey "Ja Rule" Atkins) and Beck (John Leguizamo) are basic comic relief, and one named Anna (Aisha Hinds) is a wicked shot with a Tommy gun. Usually, we'd expect them to last the night so as to provide the laughs, but DeMonaco has other plans more in tune to their characters for them. The psychologist and Roenick share some jokingly serious flirtation moments, but the attack interrupts that, sending her into a nervous habit of randomly listing numbers. Clearly these two will be together by the end, right? I won't disclose such information, but let's just say Alex finds bravery when it's least useful to her. Ethan Hawke is effective here, playing against the typical action hero type and going more for a troubled man forced into a situation he's wanted to avoid, and Laurence Fishburne's keeps Bishop a threat even when his dialogue suggests a thinking man behind that steel-gazed stare.

The climax is a slight letdown after setting expectations high by messing with the formula, and one has to wonder where a forest appears in the industrial area of Detroit. Thankfully, Richet has the sense to make use of the setting, lowering the soundtrack so that only the sounds of snowy footfalls can be heard. Assault on Precinct 13 is full of effective touches like this that make the logical problems trifles.

Copyright © 2005 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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