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Waste nothing: the power of the remake



The release last month of Ocean's Twelve, the sequel to the 2001 Ocean's Eleven, itself a remake of the 1960 Ocean's Eleven (are you still with me?) underlines one of the great truths of the American film industry, a profound and apparently enduring belief in the doctrine of the conservation of matter.

Such recent efforts as the bloody new update of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Gus Van Sant's tedious shot-by-shot duplication of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, for example, further substantiate the longevity and power of that belief. Now the new translation of John Carpenter's 1976 picture, Assault on Precinct 13, once again demonstrates that in Hollywood nothing is wasted, nothing is forgotten, nothing ever entirely disappears.

Carpenter's original work itself constituted a "reading" of Howard Hawks's classic Western, Rio Bravo, updated to an era where dangerous outlaws roamed the urban wastelands of America instead of those raw towns in the middle of the great wilderness. The new version echoes the first in placing its action in a police station about to be closed down, in this case in Detroit on New Year's Eve, where a small embattled group must hold the fort against a large and heavily armed gang. Perhaps a sign of the times, the besieging army consists not of street gangsters, Mafia thugs, or even cowboys, but a team of rogue cops led by a high-ranking officer (Gabriel Byrne).

The cops must kill one of the prisoners, a drug kingpin named Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), because he will implicate them as his cohorts in a major corruption scandal; desperate enough to kill their brother policemen and anyone else around, they attack the precinct with grenades, automatic weapons, and ultimately even a helicopter. The sergeant in charge of the precinct, played by Ethan Hawke, distributes his meager supply of weapons, including some ancient armament from the evidence room, to every person under his command, from the precinct secretary (Drea de Matteo) to the prisoners themselves, enabling the handful of assorted misfits to fight against a common enemy, with an unwonted discipline, resourcefulness, and courage.

Once the script establishes the basic situation, it begins to display the various characters inside the station house, giving each of the small crowd a chance to reveal some peculiarities of personality (and each actor to display some of his or her special abilities). Under the pressure of the battle, the collection of individuals also forms, at least momentarily, its own society. The assortment of burned out cops, frightened amateurs, and criminals undergoes a series of tests and transformations, turning the picture now and then into an examination of the dynamics of small-group functioning.

The intense violence of the assault, of course, also results in the elimination of several of the sergeant's beleaguered crew. Their personal inclinations and various reactions to stress lead a number of them to make some fatally wrong decisions --- hatching some crazy plan of counterattack, attempting to escape, even toying with the idea of overthrowing their nominal leader in a coup d'etat. Much of the dialogue and behavior revolve around the themes of trust and the possibility of subversion, linking Assault on Precinct 13 with another John Carpenter movie, The Thing (itself a remake of another Howard Hawks picture), reminding us that the original sources of all these remakes date back to the Cold War.

Some relatively predictable character conflicts and plot resolutions result from both the siege and the internal dynamics of the group. The possibility of a sexual connection arises in the relationship between Ethan Hawke and the shrinker (Maria Bello), who attempts to treat his guilt and fear, and between Drea de Matteo, apparently doomed to playing trashy, flashy bad girls, and Laurence Fishburne. Not surprisingly, the siege tests the courage and resolve of the psychologically crippled Hawke, becoming the means by which he purges himself of his posttraumatic stress.

The whole cast, mostly character actors, throws itself wholeheartedly into the action, which helps maintain the plausibility of an essentially incredible situation, and the whole ensemble acts with conviction and sincerity. John Leguizamo plays a paranoid junkie with a good deal of energy, and Brian Dennehy, mixing his strong physical presence with a hint of nastiness, makes a most convincing cop.

Laurence Fishburne as the drug dealer, however, turns in the best performance by far, positively exuding a kind of malevolent gravitas with careful gestures, understated speech, and a powerful self control; paradoxically, through word and deed, the chief criminal occupies the philosophical center of this strange and violent movie.

Assault on Precinct 13 (R), starring Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, John Leguizamo, Maria Bello, Ja Rule, Gabriel Byrne, Drea de Matteo, Brian Dennehy, Peter Bryant, Kim Coates, Matt Craven; screenplay by James DeMonaco, based on the film written by John Carpenter; directed by Jean-François Richet. Cinemark Tinseltown, Loews Webster, Regal Culver Ridge, Regal Eastview, Regal Greece Ridge, Regal Henrietta.

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