Friday, January 2, 2009


The only thing worse than a sequel is a remake. Indeed, the odds against making a movie remake that tops the original are at best astronomical. At least, in a sequel, you have a fair idea what to expect, but a remake can alter everything. Anybody remember that awful 2003 remake of Tobe Hooper's scary "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?" How about Tim Burton's rehash of "Planet of the Apes?" The Marlon Brando remake of the 1935 Clark Gable classic "Mutiny on the Bounty" remains an all-time sinker of a remake.

Sometimes, however, lightning strikes. The 1959 Lana Turner version of the weepy "Imitation of Life" surpasses the 1934 Claudette Colbert original. The Mel Gibson thriller "Payback" held its own against the tough-minded Lee Marvin original "Point Blank" (1967). The 1925 silent film "Ben-Hur" remains a powerful movie in its own right, but the sound version with Charlton Heston overshadows it. Although it flopped at the box office, the recent remake of "Willard" is far more effective than the 1971 original. Similarly, frightening as George A. Romeo's "Dawn of the Dead" (1979) is, the grisly remake carved out a niche of its own, worthy of its predecessor.

French director Jean-Francois Richet's new crime thriller "Assault on Precinct 13" (*** out of ****) amounts to a hard-boiled, adrenalin-laced, high-octane remake of "Halloween" director John Carpenter's modest but imaginative 1976 original. Carpenter made his movie on an estimated $100-thousand budget without a celebrity cast, and the plot was straightforward but white-knuckled. Essentially, Carpenter's "Assault on Precinct 13" constituted an inner city spin on Howard Hawks' "Rio Bravo," the venerable John Wayne & Dean Martin western. Whereas Carpenter's "Assault" clocked in at 91 lean, mean, trim minutes, the $30-million "Assault" remake runs 109 minutes. The story is essentially the same in both epics, only the characters and the intensity of the fireworks have been changed to keep pace with today's standards.

As remakes go, "Assault on Precinct 13" outstrips the Carpenter film on virtually every count, except originality—which isn't saying much given its derivative predecessor. In his first English-language film, director Jean-Francois Richet has assembled a convincing cast featuring Oscar winning actor Ethan Hawke, "Matrix" superstar Laurence Fishburne, "The Usual Suspects'" Gabriel Byrne, Brian Dennehy of "Silverado," and John Leguizamo of "Executive Decision." The new "Assault on Precinct 13" ramps up the violence considerably, though no kids are shot in the face through an ice-cream cone as in the Carpenter original. When the gunplay erupts in this grim, claustrophobic thriller, you might have to stuff popcorn in your ears. Every shot registers like an artillery barrage. Of course, the script by James DeMonaco of "The Negotiator" consists of clich├ęs and conventions with stereotypical characters in abundance. However, DeMonaco endows these cornered characters with far more depth than Carpenter did.

The action in the "Assault" remake unfolds in snowy Detroit instead of sunny Los Angeles. Ostensibly, Carpenter's "Assault" weighed in as an exercise in spartan suspense, while Richet's remake is a big-budget, no-holds-barred, blow-the-top-of-your-head-off, melodrama. Eight months after getting shot in the leg in a drug-bust-gone-bad that claims the lives of two other cops, Sergeant Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke of "Training Day") is popping painkillers and keeping a low profile as the desk sergeant at Precinct 13. As it turns out, the city is shutting down Precinct 13 for good, and Jake and a skeleton crew are stuck inside its dilapidated premises during a blinding snowstorm on New Year's Eve. Meanwhile, the Detroit police have arrested a notorious mobster, Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), and an army of crooked cops led by the nefarious Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne) want to terminate him with extreme prejudice so that he cannot sing like a canary to the grand jury. In the Carpenter original, gang members with silencers on their guns besieged the cops. Here, every corrupt cop in Detroit shows up for sniper duty to for target practice. Indeed, these gimlet-eyed snipers have a bad habit of missing more often than hitting their marks. Unless you stand stock still in the "Assault" remake, you have a better-than-average chance of survival. Of course, the villains are always terrible marksmen; otherwise they'd mow down the heroes and ruin the ending. Nevertheless, if either the good guys or the bad guys have you covered within an arm's length, you can expect to see exploding brains in the tradition of "Pulp Fiction." If you cannot stand the sight of blood, avoid this blood drenched remake. DeMarco's script dawdles in the middle and doesn't spring any eye-opening surprises. The surprise ending, however, comes as quite a revelation, considering the guy that gets away is as amoral as they come. The least believable surprise gets our heroes out of danger long enough to land them right back into jeopardy. A suspenseful stalking scene in a nearby wooded area seems out of place, but Richet wrings every ounce of tension from it that he can. As a director, Richet is cut from the same cloth as his French compatriot Luc Besson who helmed the trigger-happy "Le Femme Nitika" and "Leon, The Professional." Richet pours on the fusillades of gunfire when the characters don't pause to discuss their next move. You've seen this movie a zillion times if you watch westerns. Basically, the dirty cops stand in for the screaming Apaches that ride circles around the wagon train. Richet achieves a frenetic, life-on-the-raw-edge quality with his shaky camera treatment of the opening scene. This guy definitely knows how to stage action scenes with energy and flair.

Reportedly, even Carpenter liked DeMarco's screenplay, and Richet consulted him about his bullet-blasting update. Altogether, "Assault on Precinct 13" emerges as a well-done remake that will make a reputation for itself without endangering the original's cult status.

No comments: