A remake of the early work by John Carpenter, "Assault on Precinct 13" is a surprisingly violent action picture, livened by some good performances, a first-rate cast and direction that is stylish, but not distractingly so. The picture opens with Jake Fornick (Ethan Hawke) losing two fellow officers in a bust that goes bad. Six months later, he finds himself in Detroit's run-down precinct 13, with a retiree (Brian Dennehy) and a sassy secretary, Iris (Drea de Matteo).
It's New Year's Eve, and a nasty snowstorm rages outside. 13 is about to be closed up for good, and those remaining simply sit around, drink and wait for the end of their shift. Then, things go terribly wrong - a powerful gangster named Bishop (Laurence Fishburne) has been caught, and he's being transported to prison. The snowstorm stops the transport, and criminals Bishop, Beck (John Leguizamo), Smiley (Ja Rule) and Anna (Aisha Hinds) are deposited there, to be picked up and transported the rest of the way the next day.
It's not long before the precinct is under siege by corrupt officers who want Bishop freed, lead by Marcus (Gabriel Byrne, replaying his "Usual Suspects" character well). Apparently, Bishop can testify against Marcus and his crew, and they want to take out the precinct. Fornick isn't about to let anyone go, so he decides to hold things down inside - eventually deciding to arm the prisoners - while Marcus and his crew plan and try increasingly forceful ways to get in. Of course, there's no phones, no radio and no help coming.
Although the film's violence becomes a bit much at times, I found a lot to appreciate about the picture. French director Jean-François Richet and cinematographer Robert Gantz launch viewers into the action sequences with remarkable intensity, choosing to use a lot of excellent hand-held camerawork instead of rapid-fire editing and other tricks. There isn't much in the way of story or character development, but this kind of simple story works right when done well, and "Assault" manages to consistently rachet up the tension.
A few things take away from the suspense, however: there's a few moments after the set-up where Jake argues with his shrink (Maria Bello) that really don't amount to much, and the Bello character is so irritating that she's an annoyance until the siege happens and she is forced to get composed, quickly. John Leguizamo is also a pain as a chatty criminal. Also taking away from the movie are a few plot holes and convieniences, although they certainly don't ruin matters.
However, other performances are good: Hawke is compelling portraying a cop getting over the guilt at a botched operation, while Fishburne is convincingly menacing (although he is still playing his "Matrix" role). Dennehy makes more out of the grizzled veteran role than the script has to offer, while Byrne isn't bad as the lead bad guy, despite not having much to do. Fishburne and Hawke are good together - hopefully they'll do another movie together.
Sharply edited and entertaining despite its flaws, "Assasult on Precinct 13" is a bare-bones plot worked into overdrive, helped by good performances and solid direction.
VIDEO: "Assault on Precinct 13" is presented by Universal in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Image quality is impressive, as the film manages to offer excellent image quality, despite the very dark settings. Sharpness and detail are first-rate, with consistently solid definition throughout.
A little bit of edge enhancement and a couple of traces of pixelation are spotted, but no print flaws are seen. The occasional brief issues certainly were not a distraction, and didn't take away from the overall presentation very much at all. The fim's bleak, almost monotone color palette looked fantastic, with no smearing or other issues.
SOUND: "Assault on Precinct 13" is presented in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. Definitely an aggressive sound mix, the surrounds kick in intensely once the action starts, with lots of discrete sound effects coming from the rear speakers, which also offer some reinforcement of the music and some general ambience, as well. Audio quality is first-rate, with well-recorded effects, deep bass and clear dialogue.
EXTRAS: Extras include a commentary from director Jean-François Richet, screenwriter James DeMonaco and producer Jeffrey Silver, deleted scenes with director's commentary and the featurettes, "Caught in the Crosshairs", "The Assault Team", "Behind Precinct Walls", "Plan of Attack" and "Armed and Dangerous".
Final Thoughts: "Assault on Precinct 13" is a surprisingly good thriller, packing a lot of punch in a bare-bones plot. There are definitely some faults, but the performances are good and the movie moves at a fairly rapid clip. Universal's DVD offers very good audio/video quality, along with a fairly sizable helping of supplements. Action fans should at least try a rental.