Holding Down the Fort, Sticking It to the Man
By Fernando F. Croce

If it's no secret that Hollywood's originality has been dead and buried for some time, last year's record-busting number of material-recycling remakes nevertheless further cemented the feeling that it never even got a decent Viking burial. My January blues didn't exactly brighten at the prospect of going through yet another update, but the new revamp of Assault on Precinct 13 turned out to be a pleasant surprise, enough of an exciting and interesting movie to assure that, while nowhere near the recent, superb Dawn of the Dead and Manchurian Candidate updates, it at least stays far, far away from Stepford Wives territory. The narrative retains the arc of John Carpenter's great 1976 original -- bunch of Good Guys bottled up inside isolated Precinct 13, fending off the Bad Guys trying to break in. The formula has Western-style simplicity, and indeed, as us movie buffs know, the first movie itself was a reworking of themes from Howard Hawks' seminal Rio Bravo, where John Wayne and Dean Martin unforgettably stood their ground.

A remake of a remake, then. Before the notion can even sink in, the movie has already plunked the camera smack in the middle of a grimy drug bust right out of jump-cut-happy TV cop shows, with jumpy undercover narc Ethan Hawke looking like a refugee from Requiem for a Dream and bullshitting his way through a facedown with a duo of Baltic thugs before the bullets fly. The handheld jitters could not be farther from Carpenter's implacable tightness, and the whole sequence exists solely to pack the character with the kind of motivational baggage that the original, continually channeling the Hawksian dictum of thought-through-action, shrewdly boiled away. Still, the structure kicks into high-gear as a raging snowstorm forces the jail bus carrying captured kingpin Laurence Fishburne off the roads and into the eponymous isolated police station, where Hawke has nested. Keeping him company are old-school Irish cop Brian Dennehy, randy secretary Drea de Matteo (introduced via a slow pan licking up her miniskirted figure), and improbably low-cut gowned psychiatrist Maria Bello.

Mysterious invaders are soon trying to infiltrate the building, and the barricaded characters, from both sides of the law, have to trust each other in order to make it through the night. The remake's most radical detour from the original lies in clarifying the intruders' identity -- kept by Carpenter in the shadows as an ominously depersonalized force, the villains get explicitly fingered here as corrupt members of the police force (led by Gabriel Byrne) in cahoots with Fishburne's underworld Mr. Cool, and the siege as their way of dispensing with the criminal who can rat them out, with not much thought given to the innocent folks killed along the way. Whether or not the switch makes the new film more political, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has stated, is certainly debatable, since Carpenter, for all his dedication to unpretentious, muscular genre work, has always been too immersed in the paranoia and upheavals of the '70s to toil as an apolitical filmmaker. Carpenter's film is a more pointed example of defiance, though few scenes in the original can match the anger of the moment where a (white) marauding cop, dehumanized by special-force paraphernalia, is pummeled by the unbridled Other fury of John Leguizamo's sweaty junkie and Ja Rue's incarcerated gangsta.

The new Assault on Precinct 13's anti-establishment (and more specifically, anti-police) bent would seem to stem from French director Jean-François Richet, whose reportedly incendiary 1997 effort Ma 6-T va crack-er (which I haven't seen yet) similarly pitted militant youth anger against the cops. (I did see Richet's previous picture, De l'Amour, and if my memory serves me right he already gave a shout out to Carpenter by having some characters watch Halloween.) Little of the director's confrontational style has made it to this side of the Atlantic -- where Carpenter kept clean, chilling, scalpel-sharp control over the turmoil, Richet sweats too much around the edges, and his pyrotechnics (louder, messier, bloodier than the original) falls all too readily under the Bruckheimer school of stalagmite-to-the-eye-socket mayhem. (This is not the first time a young Gallic cineaste has fumbled a personal fave by remaking it; vide Olivier Assayas' muddying of Videodrome in Demonlover.) Flaws and all, however, the film is worth watching both as a pretty good thriller and a self-conscious attempt to trick up the same thriller format as a vessel for subversive ideas.

*

Coach Carter is not officially a remake, unless one counts the gazillion mawkish inspirational-teacher movies (To Sir With Love, Dead Poets Society, Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me) from whose shadow it barely registers. The tough-love maestro here is one Ken Carter (played by Samuel L. Jackson), a real-life basketball trainer who in 1999 grabbed the media's attention by organizing a gym lockout until the successful athletes of his Richmond High School team improved their grades. Along the way there are lessons to be learned about single parenting, ditching crime for education, pulverizing the other team and staying humble ("Since when is winning not enough?"). The racial tensions of the ghetto setting are even closer to the surface than in Assault in Precinct 13, yet director Thomas Carter (no relation) ignores them in favor of messagey triteness and rather generic courtside showdowns -- there's zero sizzle to his staging. The role is unchallenging (and he already did the Blackboard Jungle thing in 187), but Jackson invests it with an easy command and humor that charge the mold out of his scenes. Sports movies bore me almost as much as the real thing, though as long as they keep putting great actors coaching the action, I'll just have to keep watching them.


Reviewed January 27, 2005.

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