“Assault on Precinct 13” mired by bad writing

“Assault on Precinct 13” is the remake of John Carpenter’s 1976 film of the same name, which was itself a retelling of Howard Hawks’ 1959 western “Rio Bravo.” It is a tried and true formula that has been employed successfully many times before, but this iteration leaves much to be desired.

The movie is a siege story. A notorious gangster named Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne) is being transported through Detroit during a blizzard when inclement weather forces the bus to stop at the run-down Precinct 13. The station is about to be abandoned and apparently is in a completely isolated section of Detroit. A small army of dirty cops led by Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne), seize the opportunity to kill Bishop, who will be ratting out the dirty cops if he is ever questioned. Manning the precinct is Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke), a noble yet tormented young cop who finds himself leading the defense of the station during a highly implausible siege. Along for the ride are a supporting cast of cops, criminals and a psychiatrist, all of whom must take up unconventional weapons and battle the heavily armed attackers.

The film’s biggest failing is its screenplay. It has all the trademarks of modern Hollywood crap. First, there’s the implementation of tiresome clichés. Roenick being tortured by guilt, the wannabe edginess of Bishop’s “I’m a bad guy” monologues, and Roenick’s flirtations with his psychiatrist are all examples of these.

The second symptom of crappy screenwriting present in “Assault” is an overabundance of scenes where the characters describe their feelings to each other in great detail. These conversations almost never happen in real life, and when they do it’s either between family or the closest of friends. Here it represents a clumsy attempt at building a character arc.

The third symptom is the unnatural use of the word “fuck.” Lesser screenwriters seem to see the word as a shortcut to tension. Suddenly, the word begins popping up in places where people wouldn’t normally use it. For example, “Sit down and relax, my Serbian fucking friend” or “God-fucking-damn-it.” There was one intended moment of tension in “Assault” that was rendered ridiculous when three sequential lines by three different characters all had the word crammed awkwardly into the middle. People swear in specific, predictable ways. This is not reflected in “Assault.”

This script still could have been made to work with the proper direction, but director Richet unwisely pushes his actors toward heavy melodrama. Instead of maximizing the emotional impact of the scenes, it emphasizes the omnipresent clichés.

The film did get two things right: the casting and the action scenes. The supporting cast was peopled with capable actors like John Leguizamo, Maria Bello and Brian Dennehy. The leads, Hawke and Fishburne, are both highly accomplished actors. Hawke struggles to make the hackneyed Roenick interesting, and even succeeds every now and then. Every member of the cast has a noteworthy moment at some point in the movie, even lame rapper Ja Rule. Ultimately, the cast is unable to rise above the terrible writing and melodramatic direction.

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The action was truly a delight. It was gritty, violent and easy to follow. As an added bonus, all action in the movie adheres to the laws of physics and human capabilities, which is very rare in today’s over-the-top action films. In spite of being realistic and unspectacular, action sequences are paced and shot so that they are still gripping and intense. If only there had been more of it, the movie would have sucked less.

“Assault on Precinct 13” had all the makings of a good movie, but its good points are overwhelmed by the awfulness of the script. Nevertheless, it remains watchable and should satisfy a craving for action and violence. Anyone seeking a good movie should avoid it though.