- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 18, 2005

There’s something irresistible about watching good actors wallow in bad movies.

“Assault on Precinct 13” has a gaggle of them, from star Ethan (“but I’m an author”) Hawke to Maria (“get me outta here”) Bello trashing her budding career with alacrity.

“Assault,” a remake of John Carpenter’s 1976 schlock thriller, follows the final hours of a Detroit police precinct due to be shuttered. The furniture’s mostly gone, and so are the officers, save Sgt. Roenick (Mr. Hawke) and the ubiquitous cop on the cusp of retirement (Brian Dennehy).

The precinct gets pressed into duty one last time when a cop killer (Laurence Fishburne, oozing manicured menace) is redirected to its jail cell because of a fake-looking snowstorm.

Soon the precinct is surrounded by what appear to be the cop killer’s goons trying to spring him, but the assault seems too polished, too high-tech for garden-variety thugs.

The remaining precinct holdouts include a spunky secretary (Drea de Matteo of “The Sopranos” and “Joey” fame) and a psychiatrist (Miss Bello), who also are caught in the storm and unprepared for the siege.

The sergeant tries to rally his troops but realizes he may have to release — and arm — the prisoners to save their lives.

It’s a nifty premise, letting the good guys mingle with the bad, especially when the latter consist of a junkie-fied John Leguizamo and Mr. Fishburne. The “Matrix” star seems destined to enliven B-movies these days, and any film, B or otherwise, is better off with him.

“Assault’s” opening portends an audacious cop story, or at least a thriller worthy of its ensemble. Sgt. Roenick loses two partners in a deliriously executed set piece that raises our expectations.

The story then shifts forward eight months and settles into its B-movie groove.

Hackneyed dialogue. Glorified violence. This “Assault” has it all, including more “head shots” than a zombie double feature. Every character who catches a bullet in the brain gets one last, lingering close-up.

The remake does make a concession or two to the times. The intruders somehow jam both the precinct’s radio equipment and their cell phones — and their automatic weapons sport laser targeting systems. That they keep missing their marks only heightens the absurdity.

The purported sexual tension between Roenick and Miss Bello’s character embarrasses all involved, but director Jean-Francois Richet nails the gnawing claustrophobia gaining on our heroes.

Mr. Richet halts the action long enough for some maladroit bonding between the leads, but he’s not fooling anybody. We’re here for guilty thrills, not Dr. Phil insights.

The original “Assault” featured a no-name cast and a budding director eager to play in the cinematic sandbox.

This retread reaches for even lower ground — and we can’t take our eyes away when it finds it.

**

WHAT: “Assault on Precinct 13”

RATING: R (Harsh language, fierce violence and extreme gore)

CREDITS: Directed by Jean-Francois Richet. Written by James DeMonaco based on a story by John Carpenter.

RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes

WEB SITE: www.ap13movie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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