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Skillful 'Precinct 13' casts off the siege mentality

January 19, 2005|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

It's a wintry night in Detroit on New Year's Eve as the tense and exciting "Assault on Precinct 13" opens. A shabby facility on the edge of downtown, Precinct 13 is scheduled for imminent permanent closure. As midnight draws near, only three people remain inside: a young sergeant, Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke), haunted by the death of his partner in a misfired undercover drug sting; Iris (Drea de Matteo), the precinct's coolly sexy secretary; and a veteran cop, Jasper O'Shea (Brian Dennehy), about to announce his retirement.

Their quiet evening and plans for a modest celebration are abruptly interrupted when a major local crime lord, Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), is unexpectedly arrested in a shootout with a policeman and Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne), head of the department's Organized Crime and Racketeering Squad, has been sent to Precinct 13 along with three prisoners: highly articulate but paranoid junkie Beck (John Leguizamo, ever distinctive and commanding), counterfeiter Smiley (Jeffrey "Ja Rule" Atkins) and gang member Anna (Aisha Hinds).

Suddenly, the dilapidated Precinct 13, located in a fairly isolated area, now deserted on a snowy New Year's Eve, is under attack. The immediate assumption is that Bishop's gang is trying to break him out. But "Assault on Precinct 13," a savvy and extensive reworking of John Carpenter's 1976 cult classic of the same name -- which in turn was inspired by Howard Hawks' 1959 "Rio Bravo" -- is full of surprises. It is also full of suspense and unexpected twists that are all the more impressive for emerging within the confined circumstances of a classic siege movie. (Shades of "Fort Apache" and "Fort Apache, the Bronx.")

With cellphones blocked and phone lines cut, those trapped inside are swiftly placed in extreme danger, outnumbered by a well-coordinated, heavily armed attack team. Director Jean-Francois Richet and writer James DeMonaco make the most of a strong premise to create a timeless study of character under extreme pressure.

Roenick is smart, skilled and dedicated, but his department psychologist (Maria Bello), who has dropped by to check in on him, believes he has been eluding responsibility since the death of his partner, for which he feels responsible. And he has been numbing his pain by popping pills and sneaking swigs from a liquor bottle in his desk drawer. But as the hours wear on, Bello's Alex proves not to be nearly as self-confident as her facade suggests. With his large frame and dead-eyed laser gaze, Bishop is automatically a formidable presence but also possesses a first-rate mind sharpened by street smarts. One of Roenick's key challenges is to hold in check O'Shea, who expresses a deep hatred of Bishop as a cop killer. The strung-out Beck is in turn a lethally loose cannon.

A young Frenchman in his American directing debut and best known for "De l'Amour," Richet displays a terrific sense of mood and atmosphere, and his terse, succinct pacing and involving characters deftly deflect any questions of plausibility. He and DeMonaco started out with strong material and made the most of it. Indeed, DeMonaco has written a raft of compelling and complex characters that the film's splendid ensemble cast brings to life with panache. The interplay between the characters is consistently revealing, and Hawke and Fishburne, with their sharply contrasting personalities and physical presences, anchor the escalating action and suspense. "Assault on Precinct 13" is smart, satisfying action entertainment that is also a perceptive work of considerable artistry.


'Assault on Precinct 13'

MPAA rating: R for strong violence and language throughout and for some drug content

Times guidelines: Far too violent for children

Ethan Hawke...Jake Roenick

Laurence Fishburne...Bishop

Maria Bello...Alex Sabian

John Leguizamo...Beck

Drea de Matteo...Iris Ferry

Brian Dennehy...Jasper O'Shea

Gabriel Byrne...Marcus Duvall

A Rogue Pictures release of a Focus Features production. Director Jean-Francois Richet. Producers Pascal Caucheteux, Stephane Sperry, Jeffrey Silver. Executive producers Don Carmody, Sebastien Kurt Lemercier, Joseph Kaufman. Screenplay by James DeMonaco; based on the film written by John Carpenter. Cinematographer Robert Gantz. Editor Bill Pankow. Music Graeme Revell. Costumes Vicki Graef, Georgina Yarhi. Visual effects supervisor Dennis Berardi. Production designer Paul Denham Austerberry. Art director Nigel Churcher. Set designers David Fremlin, Mayumi Konishi. Set decorator Steven Essam. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.

In general release.

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