I’m a big fan of John Carpenter. I’ve talked before about how much I love Escape From New York (we won’t discuss the sequel), The Thing (1982) is a science fiction horror masterpiece, and the original Halloween was the codifier (if not the originator) of the slasher genre. This past weekend I caught another Carpenter film on late-night TV: Assault on Precinct 13.
And because it’s a slow week for action movies in the theater (go see Interstellar, and read Chris’ review), I’ll be doing a comparison between the 1976 original, and the 2005 remake starring Ethan “Front Man of Sugar Ray” Hawke and Lawrence Fishburne.
“Spread your butt and fly”
Good luck not thinking about that when you hear it. No, but seriously, Ethan Hawke looks like Mark McGrath…
Now, both films follow the same general plot: A rundown police station gets attacked and the cops and imprisoned criminals must band together to fend off the attackers.
In the original: it’s a street gang doing what street gangs in Los Angeles do.
In the remake: it’s a bunch of corrupt cops trying to silence a witness.
The 1976 film by no means created the genre. The whole “defend the besieged castle” is as old as dirt. John Wayne made three practically identical films based on the premise. Carpenter’s version just did it well, updated the times and made it a solid film.
While I wouldn’t quite say that the remake is bad, it definitely pales in comparison to Carpenter’s original (much like most of the remakes of his films). And certainly makes much less sense. So let’s get underway by talking about Carpenter’s earlier work.
The year was 1976, the Concord completed its first flight, the United States Celebrated its Bicentennial, and my dad turned 35. But more importantly than that- people were scared shitless about crime. I mean, they still are today. They always are, mainly because despite violent crime declining by half since 1993 (including school shootings), people still think it’s a lot more common (mainly due to the media). But in the summer of 1976, a man named David Berkowitz began brutally killing people in New York City. He became infamously known as the “Son of Sam” killer. As opposed to today (when again, this kind of stuff is statistically extraordinarily rare), people had a reason to be really afraid of a random person shooting them to death.
Now before that happened, Carpenter had already begun work on a film that he described as a cross between Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. But the Son of Sam killings morphed some parts of the script and especially influenced Carpenter’s antagonists- the LA gang called “Street Thunder.”
Much like Carpenter’s later infamous villain, Michael Myers, Street Thunder is actually not an antagonist- it’s a force of nature. One of the most interesting things about the original Halloween is that there was not a sequel planned when they made it. This turns the now-assumed sequel hook, where Michael Myers simply disappears after he gets shot, into a more spooky and interesting scene. Myers is no man, and Street Thunder is no gang; they are the whirlwind and the actual thunder. They’re presented as supernatural and ethereal, like death itself. To the average moviegoer in the winter of 1976, the random killings and violent nature of Street Thunder was a real and present threat in their minds.
In Carpenter’s film, LAPD SWAT kills one of the four leaders of Street Thunder, which then swears vengeance against the police and citizens of Los Angeles. They then seize a stockpile of automatic rifles and weapons and head out looking for people to kill. They eventually work their way towards the nearest police station- the soon-to-be-closed Precinct 13. Police Lieutenant Ethan Bishop is assigned to watch over the precinct in the last hours before its shut down forever, manned by a skeleton crew including secretary Leigh. At the same time, a prisoner transport bus bound for state prison makes a stop at the Precinct to get medical supplies for one of the prisoners who is violently ill. Also on the bus is convicted killer Napoleon Wilson. The gang reaches the Precinct and begins to isolate and besiege prisoners and cops alike. Soon, both law and lawless have to work together to survive the night.
Now, despite how it sounds, the original Assault on Precinct 13 is a psychological character study with a dash of action. The movie gets a lot of its moments from the relationship between Lt. Bishop and Wilson, and the reversal of the stereotypical roles of (white) cop and (black) criminal. It also flips the damsel in distress role that would normally be occupied by Leigh, the secretary. Leigh is a goddamn badass and more than holds her own, while at the same time not sacrificing her femininity (as is common in the “butch action woman” stereotype).
The movie went largely unnoticed when it first premiered, but since then has gained a rather large cult following and the attention it really deserves.
Overall, the 2005 remake isn’t bad. I feel like I ought to say that again, because I’m now going to talk about how much worse it is compared to the original. With a very few exceptions (The Fly, True Grit, 21 Jump Street, and even John Carpenter’s The Thing) most remakes just aren’t as good. A lot of remakes lose the heart, passion, message, or cultural context that made the original likeable, and, at the very least, people get tired of it. This is also what happened to 2005’s Assault on Precinct 13.
The plot is pretty similar: on New Year’s eve, the oldest Precinct in Detroit is manned by a skeleton crew, including Ethan Hawke. As the Precinct prepares to be shut down, Hawke drowns his sorrows in alcohol and his haunted by an undercover operation gone sour. As a blizzard approaches, a prison bus bound for state prison stops at the precinct to wait out the storm. Among others on board the bus is Crime Lord and accused cop killer Marion Bishop (Lawrence Fishburne).
Celebrations are cut short when masked assailants attack the precinct and are soon revealed to be corrupt cops. Apparently, the police captain used to be in league with Bishop and is now afraid he’ll blow the whistle on the captain. Now, the cops and criminals must band together to survive the night and protect the police’s honor.
The movie is actually a pretty solid film if taken by itself. Hawke and Fishburne actually deliver decent, although hammy and melodramatic performances. Unfortunately, with the addition of Ja Rule and John Leguizamo filling the precinct with cheese as well, the cast drowns in lactose. Also, while the original was psychological thriller with dash of action, the remake is exactly the opposite. It falls into some really dumb and obvious-yet hilarious- plot holes including, but not limited to:
Absurdly spacious sewer tunnels that nobody mentions exists until the third act.
And when the heroes escape through the tunnels, instead of exiting the tunnels a far (and safe) distance away from the precinct and its attackers, they emerge right next to the precinct, engage in a firefight with their attackers, and then flee into…
Ah yes! The world-renowned Detroit Forests.
Yes, not two minutes from Precinct 13 (which has already been stated as “in the roughest of ghettos”) is a lush evergreen forest. This is despite the opening establishing shot of the movie depicting it as- yup. In the city.
Now, in the original, the gang cut the phone lines to the precinct in order to prevent the cops inside form calling in back-up. Since the remake was made in an era of cell phones and internet the corrupt cops assaulting the precinct also jam the wireless signals. There’s one thing that they leave open- radio. The police have to have a radio inside for dispatch, why couldn’t they use that to get backup? Well, the original never really covers that, but at least in the remake, we know that the corrupt cops didn’t jam the radio signals in the area. How do we know? BECAUSE THEY USE THEM JUST FINE.
All of the corrupt cops’ radios work just fine to communicate with them. So they couldn’t have been jamming that. Now, it’s possible that since the precinct was about to be shut down, that they had already moved out the radio equipment. But we see intact and working computers inside the precinct, so I doubt that- possible, but not probable.
I do really respect the decision to change up the bad guy in the remake. Despite how well I think Carpenter did Street Thunder, it’s hard to replicate. In addition, I don’t think it would have gone over as well with modern audiences. I think the whole “random street gang that only seeks vicious violence” would have been laughable, and to give the villains more of a face, motivation, and character was a smart move.
2005’s Assault on Precinct 13 is overall not as smart a film, it’s not bad, but it’s a standard action fare. There’s not quite the dynamic between the two leads, and there certainly isn’t the interplay between cop and criminal. Unlike 1976’s Wilson, 2005’s Bishop is an unsympathetic sociopath. He’s a mass murdering crime lord who does it for “teh evuls.” Wilson is sympathetic. Yeah, he killed a few guys, but you never actually find out why. It’s not something he’s proud of (unlike the remake), and he actually tries to explain it to one of his guards before the guard is killed.
While both police protagonists are conflicted, it’s for completely different reasons. Lt. Bishop struggles with being a black police officer in Los Angeles, and Ethan Hawke’s Sergent Roenick drinks because he got his partner and friend killed in an undercover operation. And also, as with the rest, Carpenter’s film does it a little bit better. It’s not melodramatic, not trite (and god knows still relevant)- it’s subtle but noticeable.
I’d honestly recommend both films, though perhaps for different reasons. John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 is a phenomenal action-thriller that has pretty well stood the test of time. The 2005 is a pretty solidly made action film with decent performances and action that fits perfectly well on late-night TV.
Be sure to check out my other column Trope-ic Thunder, where I discuss science tropes in the media.
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