Assault on Precinct 13, the sluggish remake of John Carpenter's grungy 1976 movie of the same name, begins with a bang to which it never lives up. In a smoky den of all manner of iniquity, Ethan Hawke's trying to close a drug deal. With his girl splayed out on a dingy mattress, and with his hair shorn close to his sweaty skull, Hawke jive-talks a Russian into buying his smack. He has the rat-a-tat-tat delivery of the junkie down cold -- a giddy, hysterical torrent of paranoid nonsense, which is stitched together by a jittery film editor with the attention span of a crank addict. The Russian, bored of Hawke's prattle, proves he's a no-shit sumbitch by slugging his own dog, again and again; Hawke responds by laughing and slugging his partner, to prove he, too, can smack a bitch up. The scene, which lasts but a couple of minutes, is frightening and funny -- tension demanding some kind of release. And then it comes in the form of the inevitable shootout when the Russian recognizes Hawke's partner as a cop. A chase ensues, no backup arrives, and Hawke's left with a bullet in his leg and two dead cops to bury; the scene fades with their blood literally on his hands.
Then it's eight months later, and Hawke, identified as Sergeant Jake Roenick, has internalized his wound. Roenick looks like Ethan Hawke always does in the movies -- a wispy goatee on his chin that looks like chocolate-doughnut residue, unkempt hair grown out to alt-folkie length. You know he's tortured because the first thing he does after waking, and before rolling out of bed, is take a swig of the Johnnie Walker perched on his bedside table. In a blinding Detroit snowstorm, he drives to the ass-end of police work: baby-sitting a dying police building in the middle of nowhere. In 24 hours, as one year rolls into another, his precinct will be shut down and replaced by a shiny new one already open for business. All he has to do is pack away the few remaining files and artifacts, share a few drinks with Jasper O'Shea (Brian Dennehy) and Iris Ferry (Drea de Matteo) as the only remaining cops on duty, and disappear into the bureaucracy.
Of course, things don't go as planned. A police bus delivering four prisoners to the big house, including John Leguizamo as a conspiracy-minded junkie and Ja Rule as a small-time hoodlum who refers to himself in the third person, is detoured to Precinct 13 because of the storm, and within moments the station is under siege. Turns out the attackers are bad cops out to capture and kill prisoner Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), a bad-ass brother who refuses to share his profits with his old pals and partners on the dark side of the force. Their ringleader, a revered cop named Duvall (Gabriel Byrne, apparently from the Irish side of town), wants Bishop dead before he rats out the evildoers in the department; better to kill a few good cops, he figures, than let a criminal take down a whole bunch of bad ones.
This iteration, directed by unknown Jean-François Richet, has nothing on the Carpenter original, a terrifying last-man-standing ordeal rooted in something emotional, something tangible -- a father watching his little girl being murdered by gang members, then exacting revenge, then being chased into a safe haven that turns out to be a death trap. The first 30 minutes of the original suck the audience into the ordeal; a crime shatters the deceitful calm, and, finally, a hail of bullets shatters the police station. The gangsters were nameless, faceless shadows reflected in the moonlight, an always-growing horde of multiculti LA ghetto zombies armed with shotguns and silencers crawling into shot-out windows and unlocked doors. They're out for revenge, aiming to kill the father who offed one of their own, but never do the good (and bad) guys inside know why. There's no communication between those inside and out, only an exchange of gunfire that lasts till the ammo runs out.
Richet's variation, during which more bullets are traded than lines of dialogue, aims to be loud, dumb fun, only it takes itself too seriously to offer anything approaching a good time. It labors as a tale of redemption: Will Jake, a sort of first cousin of Hawke's character in Training Day, keep it together long enough to stave off his attackers, or will he slip into a painkiller-and-booze daze and wind up among the corpses piling up inside and outside the precinct? Richet and screenwriter James DeMonaco (The Negotiator) even add a sort of love story by throwing in Maria Bello as the therapist with whom Jake hatefully flirts during their antagonistic sessions. She, too, winds up trapped in the station -- in a skimpy New Year's Eve party gown, no less, one better suited to the tropical climes of Miami than a snowbound Motor City.
Carpenter's movie ranks among the schlockmaster's masterpieces; it's Rio Bravo populated by nobodies, a climax spread over 60 harrowing minutes. Richet's cast of somebodies even in bit roles makes this feel like a B-grade Ocean's Eleven or a Love Boat episode. He can't even work up a decent thrill. Instead, he offers up shot after shot of famous faces with holes through their foreheads, lingering over their wounds like a porn director obsessing over the money shot. It's not terrifying. It's scarily stultifying.