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Culture Reviews
Assault on Precinct 13 /By J.F.Richet/
By Sam Gerrans
Written by James De Monaco (based on the original film by John Carpenter). Directed by Jean-Francois Richet. Starring: Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishbone, Maria Bello, John Leguizamo, Brian Dennehy, Gabriel Byrne. 106 minutes. USA.

Review top sheet: “Assault on Precinct 13” fuses dialogue-heavy psychodrama with an inventive and protracted kill-or-be-killed extravaganza. Its core theme is how we justify both our failings and our fear.

A kick-ass opening scene gives way to a slow-climb first act. Shifting allegiances and a clutch of shock twists serve to keep the wings of a punchy visceral joyride bolted to the fuselage of a convoluted plot. A couple of excellent and amusing supporting roles distract from the obvious failings of the key storyline.

Will you like this film?

Yes, if: life-and-death, against-the-odds action movies do it for you.
No, if: what you really like about Ethan Hawke is his mastery of subtext and intense personal-relationship conflict.
Maybe, if: you can buy into the notion that Ethan Hawke, who looks as though he has been up all night re-writing the last chapter of an Existentialist novel is, in fact, a crack police officer recovering from deep personal trauma.

Comments: I am an Ethan Hawke fan. For me, his “Before Sunset” was a top film of 2004. There he brought a simple, low-budget freshness and theatrical intensity to cinema which wiped the floor with the previous half-dozen fifty-million dollar films I had seen. It demonstrated the point we all know but film executives can’t seem to grasp, which is that the story is not in the budget. It’s in the script.

“Assault on Precinct 13” is Hawke’s attempt to span the divide between his more classical (and totally cool) thespian story-based origins and a base camp on Mount Hollywood Superstar. I think we need more male actors there who, like Hawke, are visually interesting and personally magnetic but who don’t look like Catalogue Man. Whether this is the film to put him there is another question.

Laurence Fishbone, best known for his role as Morpheus in the Matrix films, was the man of the match for me. He is utterly convincing as an intelligent, ruthless and gifted Mafia boss. Personal gravitas and single-mindedness of purpose ooze from every pore. And at no point, despite the shoot-em-up nature of the film, do you think, “In a minute, Hawke’s going to have to choose between a red pill and a blue one...”

Quite an achievement in the circumstances.

Out-of-five star ratings:

• Story: *
• Dialogue: ***
• Substance: **
• Film craft: ***

Story comments: the plot defies belief. Unescorted prison buses with wanton criminals onboard sliding about in a blizzard on New Year’s eve may have been acceptable to John Carpenter’s original audience. But things have moved on since then. And Jean-Francois Richet is too good a film-maker not to know that. The only place for this kind of scene now is in a spoof. The set-ups to the main story are annoying, pointed, and clunky. You just have to grit your teeth and bear it. The way our plucky group under attack discovers it has lost all means of communication with the outside world almost made me laugh it was so clumsily done. The film’s makers clearly hoped that act two would get us so drenched in blood and power-reverses we would forget the pain of the road by which we arrived. I didn’t. But then I knew I’d have to write a review.

Dialogue comments: much of the dialogue used to shepherd us into the fold of the situation needed to get the story rolling reads more like a checklist than things people would (or should) say to each other. On the other hand, there are some great one-liners which I’m sure will make their way to a bar-room conversation near you soon.

Substance comments: the killing this film serves as a launch pad for is not entirely gratuitous. There is a point to be picked out of the blood and broken glass here. And it is this: a man is able to justify almost anything to himself if it serves the dictates of his underlying character. In the context of the fallacious justifications for certain wars in the world right now, this is a point the global English-speaking community might do well to digest.

Film craft comments: the film is well made though a bit “cutty” in places. But you don’t need to bring a sick-bag. These jolty sections are mercifully short and serve a dramatic purpose of sorts.

A taste of the story: Sergeant Jake Roenick (Hawke), a one-time top undercover cop, is now a desk officer hiding from the pain of a bad call he made eight months previously which cost his comrades their lives.

Unconvincingly, a top Mafia boss, Bishop, (Fishbone) and some assorted small-time crims find themselves banged up at the now decommissioned police precinct where Roenick and a few colleagues are celebrating New Year.

Powerful and well-armed bad guys need to take the now-captive Bishop out so he can’t testify against them in open court.

The resultant siege forces Sergeant Roenick out of his shell and back into hero mode.

Sam Gerrans is a freelance writer and translator: http://samgerrans.com.

04.02.05
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