All directors have a series of “tells” that seasoned moviegoers read to determine what will happen next. In Jean-Francois Richet’s remake of John Carpenter’s “Assault On Precinct 13”, there are numerous early signs that Maria Bello will eventually fall in love with Roenick, a rangy Ethan Hawke. There are the obvious ones, such as their flirtation in early scenes. There is the foil rule, which has the slut—Iris, a snarling Drea de Matteo, in this case—slated to die while the strong, intelligent woman learns to get down and dirty to survive. And then there are Bello’s lips, probably the finest in the business. Ruby red and ripe, they are constantly parted in an open invitation for tonsil hockey. But the story takes a surprise turn, and as soon as it did I knew Bello’s fate from another of Richet’s tells: after a car accident those perfect lips are rendered useless, torn like slashed plums. Goodbye, love interest. We hardly ogled ye.
“Assault On Precinct 13”, a closed-room thriller, is built entirely of those switchbacks. The interesting thing here is that Richet used these bald tactics to create an unsophisticated story full of guilty pleasures for sophisticated audiences. The Bello feint is a meta-textual treat; good poker players know that tells can also be bluffs. The greatest ever was Hitchcock’s killing off of Janet Leigh early in “Psycho”, and one of my favorites in recent memory is Samuel L. Jackson suddenly becoming a shark’s lunch in “Deep Blue Sea”. Richet’s twists are smaller and certainly not as bold, but there a lot of them, and as clear as the final destination may be, I doubt even the most jaded filmgoers will be able to guess the detours the characters take on the way there.
‘13’ is character-heavy, using a strong cast to flesh out a simple plot. Ethan Hawke’s painkiller-pounding Roenick has an actual psychological profile, but writer James DeMonaco seems to have created a file for each of the other characters, too. One imagines a yellow legal pad with scrawled notes for all the dramatis personae. At one point, as if joking about the movie’s m.o., Ja Rule even says “Let’s get to know each other”. Each has a checklist of quirks: Smiley’s a little crazy, the gangbanger has a temper problem and claims innocence, Bishop is the leopard who won’t change his spots, Iris likes to sleep with dangerous men, and so on. All the cards are on the table, right there in front of our eyes, but Richet keeps shifting them around.
As good as he is at misdirections, though, it’s the rich textures of the film—a small piece of skin hanging from the inside of Bello’s lip, for example—that yield a slew of gritty images. The details in ‘Assault’ are everything, and Robert Gantz’ camera captures an infinite range of granular detail, large to small, all painted in chilly blues and crisp silvers. Some of the better ones include the moonlit glass on the floor of the precinct, lasers slicing through smashed windows, the deep red welt on Hawke’s face after his gun fight, and the spectral forest at dawn. His true passion, however, is for head trauma. Some heads explode like red confetti, while others have merely a small hole out of which a trickle of blood crawls like a lazy earthworm. Other victims are ventilated with objects including a samurai sword, an icicle, a syringe, and a hunting knife. I'm sure a machete will surface on the DVD.
Quite a lot of gore, but without these felt details ‘Assault’ would be merely a slick farce. The palpability of the setting distracts us from the silliness of the assault. The doozy of doozies: the siege force of cops is more like a high-tech Delta Force outfit than a bunch of crooked beat-walkers. Their failure to wipe out the crew inside the precinct isn’t just hard to swallow, it’s laughable. On more than one occasion two cops, armed like twenty-fifth century militiamen, sneak in through a side door, encounter light resistance—and promptly turn and run.
Nor can they aim. The bumbling snipers make stormtroopers look like Annie Oakleys. Even worse, Richet vets their incompetence by having chief baddie Gabriel Byrne, in a bizarre parody of his Tom in “Miller’s Crossing”, nod appreciatively and mutter “It was the smart play” or “This guy’s good”, like a grandmaster who’s had his queen’s gambit thwarted by a clever rival. His standards seem low. A ball-busting secretary shrieking and firing a pistol blindly over her shoulder at a pack of would-be killers may be a typical night in South Detroit, but a “smart play” it isn’t.
Still, had Byrne’s dirty cop been smarter, or if his men had been better shots, we wouldn’t have gotten the chance to marvel as the sinewy Hawke instills life into the haunted cop Roenick, or Drea de Matteo flashes her fishnet stockings, or a smooth Laurence Fishburn calculates his next kill as the arch-criminal Bishop. And no chance to laugh as John Leguizamo steals every scene in the movie with his conspiracy-theorist inmate, Beck. (Best line: a cop asks him, “Your eyes are all red. You been using drugs?” To which he responds, “No. Your eyes are glazed. You been eating donuts?”) Indeed, the cast lends “Assault On Precinct 13” all the credibility it needs. For his part, Richet shores up the many holes in “Assault On Precinct 13” with unassuming but nimble craftsmanship that faithfully invokes, in spirit if not in detail, the low-budget, can-do ingeniousness of Carpenter’s original.