Assault on Precinct 13 (2005)

Dir. Jean-Francois Richet
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, John Leguizamo, Brian Dennehy(!), Maria Bello, Gabriel Byrne

I’m recommending this to Joel, Marc, Burgess and Don–with the qualifier that this is a good one to see on a Saturday night when you don’t have anything else to watch. I think Penny would think this is a good popcorn movie. Chris, Kevin and Grace might mildly enjoy this, too. Larri gave this an 8! There are some things that I really liked about this movie, despite the relatively low score, but I’ll save those comments for later.

This is a remake of John Carpenter’s original version of the film, which I understand was an update itself of Rio Bravo and El Dorado (which are basically the same movie, both directed by Howard Hawks, I believe). I never saw the Carpenter film, but I grew up enjoying El Dolrado. Anyway, the story involves a police officer, Sgt. Jake Roenick (Hawke), who is in disarray because he lead a botched undercover operation, leading to the death of two cops. Now, he’s overseeing a soon-to-be-closed precinct office on New Year’s Eve. Because of snowstorm, the busload of prisoners–including a major crime boss, Bishop (Fishburne)–must be held in there until the next day. Things heat up when a group of armed men try to break into the precinct to get Bishop. This the type of film where low expectations can help you enjoy the film (while conversely high expectations will take away from it).

When I see this many good actors listed on a relatively small, unheard of movie like this while browsing at a video store, there are two possibilities for their being in the movie: 1.) They were really desperate for money; 2.) The script and roles (or something worthy) attracted them. I think it was the latter because I can see the actors signing up because it is a worthwhile script. (Actually, a more accurate depiction of the actor’s decision may have been, “I need the money and this is a decent script, especially given the choices out there.) In an interview Ethan Hawke said that this was the “smartest action script out there” (or something to that effect), and I’m not going to argue with him too much. James DeMonaco is the screenwriter, and he also wrote the screenplay for The Negotiator (which was a decent action-thriller). I wanted to mention him because the screenplay is the thing that stands out for me the most. I mean, it’s not the greatest story, but there are so many interesting plot developments that keep you engaged in the story, even though some of them will challenge the viewers suspension of disbelief or they were not completely executed well. Moreover, I liked the way the plot developed in ways that conformed more with reality than with Hollywood conventions. I’m thinking specifically of the way certain characters were killed off (more abruptly than I expected), characters you would expect to survive. These decisions indicated that the story came first (versus pleasing the audience or filmmakers, who may want certain characters to survive).

The script also attempts to cover problematic plot holes. For example, how could the bad cops expect to get away with the assault? Explanation: they would blame it on Bishop’s men, presumably in a botched breakout. But how could this massive assault take place without authorities–or anyone–knowing about it? Answer: a heavy snowstorm and the precinct is located in an industrial area. These aren’t completely satisfying explanations, but I appreciated the thought and effort to deal with these plot points, which are often missing in many Hollywood action films. I also liked the way the screenwriter (and other filmmakers) use the story and characters to drive the action rather than the other way around.

So why didn’t I like this more? Although the cast is very good, the acting may have been the main reason, especially Laurence Fishburne’s performance. I remember Michael Caine, in an interview, saying that crime bosses (and people of power) don’t move very much and speak slowly and calmly. That’s true, but a menacing energy must be percolating beneath that. Fishburne brought that calm approach, but with very little menace. He often seemed bored and uninterested in the role. This may have contributed to the weak chemistry between him and Hawke. There scenes together lacked something–credibility, tension,…I’m not sure. I don’t think Hawke was the problem, as I found his acting decent, although he didn’t quite fit the role of a tough cop. The Negotiator, by contrast, worked because of the rapport and charisma of the two lead actors Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson. The movie worked because they both were effective. That’s not the case in this film. For all my praise of the script, the characters are pretty flat, and if they were more finely drawn and their back stories were integrated in the dramatic drive of the story, the movie would have been a lot better. Still, the plot twists and the attempts at helping the audience suspend their disbelief should be commended and make this a good action film, especially when you are desperate for one.

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