In the increasingly overpopulated world of recent movie remakes, the new version of "Assault on Precinct 13" falls somewhere in the middle of the pack: far short of the heights of Jonathan Demme's surprisingly strong updating of "The Manchurian Candidate," but easily besting the wretched 2003 version of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." The new "Assault" is a slick and efficient action film, easily watched and just as easily forgotten.
It is also completely unnecessary, because the original 1976 film holds up quite well. The new version (made for $20 million as compared to the original's $100,000) has superior technical values and is arguably better in the writing and acting departments as well. So what makes the original a better film? Two words: John Carpenter. Although he was part of the first generation of film school graduates to become major filmmakers, Carpenter is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Scorsese, Coppola and other contemporaries. Content to work in genres (horror, action-adventure, sci-fi) that rarely win esteem and critical raves, Carpenter has been a consummate entertainer and craftsman for more than 30 years. If his best movies don't meet the standards of "high art," they are proving to have longer lives many films that do.
Carpenter adores and emulates the great studio directors of the past, and none more so than Howard Hawks, whose 1959 western "Rio Bravo" was the blueprint for "Assault on Precinct 13." Carpenter (already claiming credits for writing, directing and composing the film's effective, minimal electronic music score) used the pseudonym John T. Chance for his work as editor on the film. It's the name of John Wayne's character in "Rio Bravo."
"Assault" transplants the basic conflict of "Rio Bravo" (outnumbered heroes battling an army of outlaws while trapped in a single location) from the old west to mid-'70s Los Angeles, where newly promoted cop Ethan Bishop has been given the dull assignment of babysitting a nearly abandoned police station about to be closed permanently. It doesn't seem like much will happen until a prison bus transporting dangerous convict Napoleon Wilson is forced to stop there. Then, a man fleeing from members of the city's most notorious street gang, comes to the station for protection. Determined to get him out at any cost, dozens of gang members descend upon the precinct and its handful of occupants. In order to survive, Bishop is forced into an uneasy alliance with Wilson.
The plot is as simple as can be and Carpenter's dialogue is a pastiche of western-inspired cliches, but the film's simplicity is also its greatest asset. There isn't a wasted word or gesture, even if many show the unpolished naivete of a director making his first professional feature (his debut "Dark Star" was pieced together over several years). This is spare, no-nonsense storytelling at its best and what it lacks in thematic complexity it makes up for in sincerity and skill. Showing a great talent for widescreen composition in his first movie shot in Panavision, Carpenter makes the movie look far better than its drive-in cheapie budget should allow. And while the largely unknown cast did not go on to great fame and fortune, they all do well in iconic roles molded in the traditions of old Hollywood. Austin Stoker conveys everyman nobility as Bishop, while Darwin Joston offers a nice mix of menace and swagger as Wilson, with his signature line, "Got a smoke?"
The Image DVD of "Assault on Precinct 13" includes an interview segment with Carpenter and Stoker, a theatrical trailer, radio commercials, an image gallery (with production photos, storyboards, poster and lobby card art) and a commentary track from the director that, among other highlights, informs us how little Kim Richards (of Disney's "Escape to Witch Mountain" fame) enjoyed playing victim in the film's most notorious scene.
Along with "Rio Bravo," "Assault on Precinct 13" also echoes a bit of the claustrophobic suspense of "Night of the Living Dead." With 2001's "Ghosts of Mars," Carpenter revisited the "Assault"/"Bravo" premise with more overt horror movie elements. This time a police unit in a futuristic, matriarchal society is stranded in a desolate mining colony on Mars, where the previous residents met with a very bad end at the hands of tribal savages infected by some sort of spirit-virus carrying the unbridled rage of the planet's original occupants.
This main cop here is Natasha Henstridge (a late replacement in a role intended for the reliably unstable Courtney Love) and her unlikely gangster partner in the fight for survival is the ever-scowling Ice Cube. OK, so maybe we're not talking prestige acting here, but the movie is loads of fun. Stellar action scenes, spooky montages of the savages set to a hard-driving score (by Carpenter and metal favorites Anthrax), and some great sets and special effects make this a popcorn-muncher of the first order. It's worth the rental fee just to see Ice Cube sneak a cocky grin directly to the camera just before the credits roll.
Columbia Tri-Star's "Ghosts of Mars" DVD comes with a couple of behind-the-scenes segments and a fun commentary track with Carpenter and Henstridge that alternates between mutual compliments and teasing criticisms.
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