On a snowy New Year's Eve in Detroit, criminal kingpin Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne in "Morpheus" mode again) is being transferred to a maximum-security prison to await trial. When the road conditions worsen, the police decide to take Bishop and other prisoners (including Ja Rule and a sweaty John Leguizamo) to remote Precinct 13 to wait out the storm. On the eve of closing up the precinct for good, Sergeant Jake Roenick (a spunky Ethan Hawke), his officers, and assorted office riff-raff (including Brian Dennehy, Maria Bello, and Drea de Matteo), are ill-equipped to handle such a notorious figure, and they soon find themselves in danger when unknown forces surround the precinct demanding Bishop's head. Forced to team up with the criminals to survive the night, Jake and Bishop form an uneasy alliance, which is repeatedly put to the test during this bleak and violent standoff.
Even in the remake-happy world of Hollywood, "Assault on Precinct 13" (IMDb listing) is a fairly rare breed: a remake of a remake. The first "Assault" was Howard Hawks's 1959 western classic, "Rio Bravo," which then morphed into John Carpenter's 1976 "modern" and hard-boiled reimagining of the tale. The new "Assault" is another reworking of the central plot, but it works off of Carpenter's thriller style and ample violence. Maybe the third time is the charm for this material, because the latest "Assault" is a shocking achievement in remake cinema, and a real treat for action/suspense film fans.
French director Jean-Francois Richet, making his English-language debut, comes out of seemingly nowhere to propel "Assault" forward with his tightly wound direction and unwritten pledge to keep the script startlingly honest to the situation. As a guns-blazing action film, "Assault" is riveting entertainment, with a sharp pace that doesn't allow for many opportunities to exhale, and a refreshing, striking blizzard-caked urban landscape to amplify the claustrophobia and confusion during the siege. The picture holds the audience by creating a unique atmosphere of genuine threat between the battling foes, adding to the idea that any character could be killed at any given moment -- a promise that is kept. I haven't seen that in a film in a long time.
Richet also holds a remarkable amount of respect for his violence. With high-tech weaponry and a rap "star" in the cast, on the outside, "Assault" doesn't look all that different from any other thriller from the past decade. However, Richet miraculously doesn't pull his punches, and "Assault" doesn't dodge the grisliness and dread of the situation. The film is enormously violent, sometime grotesquely so (the icicle death from "Die Hard 2" is recreated here), and the script features ample cursing. But in a cinematic world where every movie is being watered down just so "Timmy Preteen" can spend his lawn-mowing money on the latest feature film, it's a joy to see a gritty, take-few-prisoners film like "Assault," and a relief to see it come together so magnificently. This is accomplished R-rated entertainment, and superb, unexpected filmmaking. "Assault on Precinct 13" is a rare January treat.
Filmfodder Grade: A-