Ah, remakes. Sometimes they're good, sometimes they're bad. But most of the time, they are simply unnecessary. Add to that list 'Assault on Precinct 13,' a 2005 remake of the 1976 John Carpenter cult classic. A perfectly fine police thriller in its own right, it's undoubtedly fun, suspenseful and offers a few clever twists on the original, Nevertheless, it probably never needed to be made.
More or less faithful in concept and structure to Carpenter's film, 'Precinct' begins on a dark, snowy New Year's Eve in downtown Detroit. Sgt. Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke) is back behind a desk, having just suffered a bust gone wrong where his best partner was killed. Shattered and disillusioned, he drinks his nights away with the rest of the precinct's diverse crew, including hard-boiled chief Jasper (Brian Dennehy), an Internal Affairs officer (Maria Bello) who previously had an affair with Roenick, and the tough-as-nails dispatcher Iris (Drea De Matteo). But when a failed transfer of mob mastermind Bishop (Laurence Fishburne) results in his escape along with four other hardened criminals (including an wonderful John Leguizamo), Precinct 13 is suddenly under siege. Roenick will be pressed back into active duty, and forced to confront his demons as the lines begin to blur between just who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.
I liked the new 'Assault on Precinct 13.' In many ways, it is a tougher film than its predecessor, more realistic and less mythic, and is certainly much slicker. Carpenter worked wonders on his low budget, but like most of his earlier work, his love of cheesy B-movie conventions sometimes straddled far too closely the line between homage and incompetence. In contrast, 2005 'Precinct' is a major studio effort, with a A-list cast, tightly-choreographed action and stylish yet restrained direction from French filmmaker Jean-François Richet, making his American debut. Screenwriter James DeMonaco also does a nice job in tweaking our expectations of the original film by expanding upon the characters, restaging key setpieces and opening up the milieu for a genuinely suspenseful climax that radically departs from the original. Though the 2005 'Assault' loses a bit of the charm and effective claustrophobia of Carpenter's film, it is more or less successful in updating the concept for modern audiences while still retaining the original's primary theme of the thin moral line that divides the right and wrong sides of the law.
The new 'Precinct' also has a lot of fun with its supporting characters. Particularly memorable is Bello's hardened IA officer, who holds her own against the jumpy Hawke (who looks so anorexic it's creepy) and manages to create real empathy for what is essentially a stock character. Leguizamo is also hilarious, turning another routine caricature into an inspired rat of a petty criminal -- his one-liners enliven every scene he's in. Fishburne and Gabriel Byrne (who is top-billed in the opening credits but doesn't show up until a surprise second-act appearance) are also suitably cruel and hardened as the uber-villains, even if Fishburne occasionally sleepwalks through scenes as if he's just cashing a paycheck. Only De Matteo is completely extraneous as Iris -- performing no discernible function either at the prrecinct or in the script, she stands around dressed like a hooker, apparently only for sex appeal. I could only keep hoping that she'd die sooner rather than later.
Ultimately, 'Assault on Precinct 13' is a fun action flick that is never boring. Still, like so many remakes, it doesn't really have much reason for existing, other than that '70s remakes are hot right now, and Richet was apparently a huge fan of the original. Alas, he makes no real attempt to update the material's relevance to today's culture, so despite some clever switcheroos on the original film's narrative structure, it is hard to remember much about 'Assault on Precinct 13' fifteen minutes after it ends. But purely as a fun Saturday night popcorn movie, it delivers.
It came as somewhat of a surprise to me, but I actually thought 'Assault on Precinct 13' looked considerably better in the theater when I saw it back in January of 2005 -- and I didn't even see the movie in a particularly great cinema. I think the problem with this HD DVD transfer -- which is minted from the same master that produced last year's standard DVD release of the film -- is that it suffers from today's trend towards pumping up video transfers to look so artificial and "clean" that they lose the grittiness and organic warmth of real film.
So it goes here with 'Assault.' Though the print itself is clean as a whistle and boasts excellent blacks and contrast, many scenes (especially the opening 15 minutes or so) look too tweaked. Colors are overly saturated (especially fleshtones) and the heavy processing limits detail, especially on skin and textures. The transfer is also a bit dark -- though obviously intentional -- which doesn't result in exemplary shadow delineation. Even on the HD DVD transfer, picture elements are lost to the blackness, and in a couple of shots it is even hard to make out exactly what is happening onscreen. I also thought the standard DVD transfer was too soft, though sharpness is improved somewhat on the HD DVD version.
Still, these aren't huge quibbles. The HD DVD does prove to be a fairly noticeable upgrade over the standard DVD transfer, particularly the cleaner whites (which is important, as so much of this movie is covered in snow) and more apparent depth to the image. Colors are also a tad bit more robust, especially the reds and midnight blues. Overall, a perfectly nice-looking movie, but I just wasn't blown away as I've been with other recent HD DVD titles.
I also was expecting a bit more from the English Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track included. It's a good mix -- some nice stereo effects, fairly robust low bass and sporadic bursts of surround effects during the acton scenes. However, it just is not as aggressive as I remember feeling in the theater (though maybe my memory is faulty), nor can it measure up to the best action soundtracks I've heard on DVD.
Surround use, even during the action bits, sometimes feels obvious. I could detect the separation across all channels as sound effects whizzed by, and the illusion was never truly transparent. Dialogue also felt too quiet in the mix, often overpowered by explosions and gunfire to the point where I was frequently adjusting the volume level on my receiver. The film's score is also really formulaic and forgettable, and just merges in with the effects -- it sounds very weak in the mix. Again, like the transfer, this is hardly a bad soundtrack. Just nothing exceptional, which is certainly a surprise for an action film of this type.
Notable about 'Assault on Precinct 13' is that it is the first HD DVD release to also include a DTS 5.1 surround option (note this is not encoded in the new DTS-HD format, the first releases of which are expected later this year or early next). However, due to the higher resolution of the Dolby Digital-Plus format, it could be argued that including a standard DTS track option is largely irrelevant. And listening to the DTS on 'Assault,' I'd have to agree. I could scarcely tell much different between the Dolby-Plus and DTS tracks. I literally had to watch the a 25-second loop of a scene during the film's effects-heavy climax over and over to try and discern any slight improvement with the Dolby-Plus track. Perhaps it was just the repetition of it, but some of the surround effects sound a hair livelier on the Dolby-Plus track. It is hard to imagine including a standard DTS track on an HD DVD release will add much value, given the strength of the Dolby-Plus format. However, that may change with the first Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD compatible players and receivers hit the market this year.
The standard DVD release of 'Assault on Precinct 13' had a fairly typical batch of extras, all of which have been ported over to the HD DVD release. All are presented in fullscreen and encoded at 480i.
First up are five video-based featurettes that run nearly 40 minutes combined, and are all culled from EPK material (i.e., fawning on-set interviews conducted before the movie came out and subsequently bombed). The first three are all behind-the-scenes looks at constructing the film's action setpieces: "Armed and Dangerous" gives a peek at the films' many weapons and how the filmmakers strove for authenticity; "Plan of Attack" dissects the movies many stunts; "Behind Precinct Walls" documents the film's impressive main set, which was entirely constructed on a soundstage; and "The Assault Team" introduces us to the creative team, in particular Jean-François Richet, whom everyone raves about. Last and least is "Caught in the Crosshairs," a sort of overview of the whole film akin to one of those HBO First Look specials -- too bad it reveals the whole plot, so don't watch it before you see the movie.
Next up are a batch of six deleted scenes, all with optional commentary by Richet. Most provide some added character background but still feel like they were wisely cut; however I did like one bit that expanded on Gabriel Byrne's machinations, which I felt made him a more credible villain. As well as more ambiguous, which to me is always more interesting. But perhaps that is not the direction Richet wanted to go.
Last up is the disc's best extra, the audio commentary with Richet, screenwriter James Demonaco and producer Jeffrey Silver. Though Richet is rather hard to understand given his thick accent, his passion for the material comes through, which is endearing. We get plenty of detail on the entire production process, from conception to shooting to the editing. Unfortunately, this track seems to have been recorded before the movie came out and tanked, so we don't get much perspective on its lack of impact with audiences. However, Richet and Demonaco go into great detail on the changes between n their remake and the original, which more than makes up for it. If you dig the film, then this commentary is worth a listen.
Note that no theatrical trailer is included, though the standard DVD release of the film didn't have one either, for whatever reason.
I really enjoyed 'Assault on Precinct 13.' It certainly is one of the better remakes in recent years, even if it doesn't really add or subtract much from the original John Carpenter cult classic.