Friday, July 08, 2005

Is 13 a Lucky Number? Two Assaults in Two Eras

I just got around to viewing the 2005 re-make of John Carpenter's 1976 classic, Assault on Precinct 13. My wife and I did a "Precinct 13" night and watched the re-make first, then the original, just to see how they would stack up when put side to side.

Sad to say that the new film, starring Laurence Fishburne and Ethan Hawke, can't hold a candle to the 1970s exploitation hit. The new film looks like a 1990s-style action-flick, sorta Die Hard in an Abandoned Police Station, and it plays out as an utterly routine example of the genre. Nothing really wrong there, per se. Some moments are rather exciting, and the action is convincing. But this movie has no real heart or life of its own, it just sits there on the screen. Ho hum.

It's illuminating to point out the differences between the two films. In the stunning, explosive original, all the events that played out were random. All of that verisimilitude has been wiped away in the remake, and replaced with Hollywood screenwriting machinery so old it creaks.

To recap the original: a gang of interracial thugs(?) in Los Angeles steal a cache of automatic weapons from the cops and go hunting on the streets. They happen upon an ice cream vendor, who they attack. At the same time, they brutally murder a little girl who just wanted a vanilla twist. Enraged, her father steals the vendor's pistol, kills a gang member, and flees to an abandoned police station on the night it is closing. It just so happens that this very night is Lt. Bishop's (Austin Stoker's) first night on the job, and worse - a group of cutthroat criminals are incarcerated in his jails because one of them has fallen ill. Realizing that the vanilla twist girl's dad is inside, the interracial gang (Street Thunder) lays siege to the precinct...all night. The cops and the criminals join forces to hold off the bad guys, but never even know who they are fighting, much less why.

There's something wonderfully realistic about this approach. Action leads into action, and people don't always know motivations or reasons for brutal acts. That's fate, baby, and the original film reflects this fact, especially in the horrible, straight-faced murder of that vanilla twist tyke. Pretty cold-blooded, hardcore stuff. But that's why we love it, right?

Now here comes the razzle-dazle, big-budget remake in the age of packaged movies. In the new version of Assault on Precinct 13, a criminal boss, played by Laurence Fishburne holds up at an abandoned station run by Ethan Hawke in Detroit, on the night of a terrible snow storm. He knows too much about corrupt cops, so the cops lay siege to the precinct, even though some of their own are inside. In this version of the story, we know exactly why the villains are attacking (must...prevent...Fishburne's...testimony...), we get an unncessary back-story about Fishburne's character, and there's plenty of psychological trauma to substitute for characterization. Hawke's character, you see, was once in a situation where he was responsible for a team of cops -- and they all died when an undercover op went bad. He took the job at this abandoned station so he will never have to confront responsiblity again. Care to hazard a guess as to whether he's up to the task of leading men into battle?

I won't even get started on the obsessive-compulsive psychologist. I bet that idea looked great for a one-line character description in a story outline

But basically, the new Assault on Precinct 13 - while being an efficient actioner - takes all the surprises and twist-and-turns out of Carpenter's original story (which was an homage to the John Wayne/Howard Hawks classic, Rio Bravo). In the new show, every character goes through a carefully prescribed and predictable arc; every character has his big moment; every motivation is known, understood and boring.

As a result, the original is still the version with all the piss and vinegar. It's bold, reckless, daring, occasionally cheesy, and downright original. Carpenter has already re-made the picture in a Los Angeles Church (Prince of Darkness) and on Mars (in the underrated Ghost of Mars), so it's really hard to see why another remake - without Carpenter at the helm - was even necessary.

So here I am again, saying the old is better than the new. I pray that Hollywood will soon broach a re-make that I can fawn all over and rave about. Just to prove I'm not an embittered old guy...

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:34 PM

    Please change your mind just a little bit! The new Assault on Precinct 13 was FRIGGIN' AWESOME! All the action nearly pushed me off my seat!