How does the saying go? "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue."
It's not exactly a wedding, but the phrase fits "Assault on Precinct 13" like it was wearing hand-beaded peau de soie.
The "old" is the story itself, a remake of John Carpenter's 1976 urban shootout. What's new is the setting - Detroit during a New Year's Eve snowstorm, updated from sweltering summertime L.A.
As for borrowed, producers Pascal Caucheteux and Sebastien Lemercier convinced French action film director Jean-Francois Richet to sojourn in the U.S. and helm the project. Because Richet spoke little English, they wisely hired American screenwriter James DeMonaco ("The Negotiator") to make sure the dialogue stayed real amid what they hoped would come across as a fresh take on the American action genre.
And blue? Cops, naturally. The action takes place in a dilapidated precinct building on the outskirts of town, just as it's being shut down. The handful of police left on duty - Ethan Hawke, Drea De Matteo and Brian Dennehy - are packing the last boxes of files and evidence when a prison transport bus pulls in for the night, diverted because of the storm.
On board are a few small-time hoods and one very big-time gangster, played by Laurence Fishburne, who's put on so much bulk he's approaching "massive." He's lethally brutal, too, as his introductory scene depicts. When he's apprehended and denied bail, it looks like Organized Crime Squad leader Gabriel Byrne has finally got his man.
With the criminals temporarily housed for the night, the new year appears to be arriving without incident until masked gunmen break into the building. On their tail comes automatic weapons fire and stun grenades, as an unnamed assault squad outside does its best to exterminate every soul in the precinct building. Led by Hawke and Fishburne, the cops and the criminals form a volatile alliance to try and stay alive until the dawn.
If I hadn't seen the previews that helpfully explained who the characters were, I might have had trouble keeping score at the beginning. Hawke, Fishburne and Byrne each stand at different points of the moral compass - but once it becomes clear who's on which side of the law (about half an hour into the show), the story instantly stiffens, and audiences switch from being interested in what's going to happen to just passing the time waiting for it to happen. We know from the start that somebody on the inside has got to be on the bad guy's payroll, for example, and there are so few characters, there's no fun in guessing who it could be.
The three leads play their archetypal characters with varying degrees of success. Byrne is understated as usual. Fishburne takes "intense" to a level where you expect laser beams to shoot out of his eyes. But Hawke is miscast here. He's supposed to be a police sergeant, confined to a desk job after being injured on a drug bust that went wrong, killing his partners. He doesn't wear the authority well, and just comes across as abrasive when he tries to be commanding.
Still, director Richet takes the time to flesh out these characters as well as the smaller roles, so that when the shooting starts, audiences can really focus on what's happening to each person. The goons outside, though faceless, also get a little personal consideration instead of just hitting the snow.
And it's the drama between the cops and the criminals that elevates "Assault on Precinct 13" to a level slightly more watchable than the typical cops-and-robbers shoot-em-up flick. Unfortunately, some clumsy plotting and all-too-obvious "twists" drag it back down and will surely relegate it to a quick trip to the video store shelves.
"Assault on Precinct 13"
Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, and for some drug content
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, Gabriel Byrne, Drea De Matteo, Brian Dennehy, John Leguizamo
Directed by: Jean-Francois Richet
Length: One hour 49 minutes
Now playing at: Astoria Gateway Cinemas, Cannes Cinema Center in Seaside
Short take: This remake of John Carpenter's 1976 urban shootout flick relies heavily on the tension between a handful of cops and criminals, led by Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne, who are forced to fight side by side to defend themselves from a brutal assault force.
Rating: Two and a half stars (out of four)
Movie trivia: What occupations did Gabriel Byrne hold before becoming an actor at age 29?
Answer: Before becoming an actor, Byrne worked as an archaeologist, a schoolteacher, a short-order cook and a bullfighter.