A remake of John Carpenter's superior film of the same title from 1976, Assault on Precinct 13 concerns a siege on a largely abandoned police station, which is related to the presence of a notorious criminal, Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne). It's left up to a ragtag group of police employees and criminals to defend themselves.
I should start by noting that I absolutely love Carpenter's original film. In my view it is one of his best, perfectly capturing the suburban desolation of 1970s Los Angeles, and exquisitely suspenseful and horrifying, even though it's not really a horror film. Despite that, when this remake of Assault on Precinct 13 began, I had high hopes for it. The first scene is well directed, well shot, with excellent dialogue. It turns into an intense action scene at just the right moment, and results in some realistic, gritty deaths. The opening is as good as anything in the Carpenter film.
Unfortunately, Assault on Precinct 13's excellence ended right there. It's not exactly a bad film--I enjoyed it more often than not, but it does have more than its share of flaws. In the end, my rating average out to a 7 out of 10. Recommendable, but with reservations.
The first problem is that director Jean-Francois Richet tries to do too much--too much backstory, too many characters, too many over-the-top characters, too many quick cuts, too much shaky hand-held camera work, too many "big action moves", too many explosions, too many settings, and it's too dark. That the film is often so quickly edited and dark makes it too often difficult to see what's going on in the action scenes. Carpenter's film succeeded by being very taut, economical, sober and logical in its directorial style. Richet tries to one-up the original by forgoing all of those qualities. By the second or third scene, I was fairly confused. Superfluous characters were popping in and out, people were mumbling dialogue, and there was a whole complex backstory being hinted at and not spelled out very well.
The brutal shooting near the beginning of the original film, which sets off the whole sequence of events, was dropped--that thread was completely removed from the film. It was lamentable in that this new Assault loses much of the simple, sensible drive the thread provided, and it was surely a decision based on political correctness. Likewise, Bishop is not allowed to be a clear-cut bad guy here. That saps some of the effectiveness out of his cooperation. In this film, he might be mostly tough talk. The other criminals in the film are either left largely unexplained or guilty of only petty or consensual crimes. I find this kind of political correctness in films reprehensible, although I realize it's primarily a studio decision.
On the positive side, the villains here were cleverly conceived, and their nature makes them much more menacing physically. On the negative side, however, Richet lost the Night of the Living Dead (1968) zombie-like nature of the marauders, which saps suspense from the attacks. The logistics of the defense of the police station and details of their dilemma are not very clearly scripted or staged, either, which doesn't help. Another flaw is that some intruders seem to inexplicably hesitate. Another positive, though, is that Richet's film brings back a few small details, such as the capture of the criminal at the beginning of the film, and a substance addiction in one of the heroes leading to a character transformation, found in Rio Bravo (1959), the film that in conjunction with Night of the Living Dead, was the main inspiration for Carpenter's original film.
Also on the positive side, this Assault has a skilled (and much more well known) cast. Even though Richter occasionally directed them to be a bit too over-the-top, the performances hit many very interesting notes. And a few of the additions to the original film, such as a Mexican standoff and a couple later scenes outside the police station were excellent. The increased firepower here may also be to some viewer's liking.
A viewer less fond of the original, or even unfamiliar with the original, may like Assault better than I did. I may have even liked it better if the original were not so fresh in my memory (I just watched it again it recently--a review is forthcoming). There are enough redeeming aspects for action fans to make it worth at least a rental or a viewing on cable, but approach the film with lowered expectations.