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Review: An enjoyable 'Assault on Precinct 13'

By Paul Clinton

Fishburne, De Matteo
Laurence Fishburne and Drea De Matteo in "Assault on Precinct 13."
Ethan Hawke
Laurence Fishburne

(CNN) -- "Assault on Precinct 13" is not really a remake of John Carpenter's 1976 cult film of the same name. Rather, it's a re-imagining of the concept, which was inspired by Howard Hawks' classic 1959 movie "Rio Bravo."

Once again the story has an urban Western quality, and once again at the heart of the drama is the conflict between two men -- one a man of law and order, the other a cold-blooded killer.

Ethan Hawke plays Sgt. Jake Roenick, a cop struggling with inner demons and deep psychic scars concerning a fatal undercover operation that cost the lives of his entire team. Laurence Fishburne plays Marion Bishop, a vicious crime boss who has been captured by the organized crime and racketeering squad led by Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne).

During the course of just a few hours Roenick and Bishop find themselves in an unholy alliance in which they must band together in order to survive.

The action takes place during one short, bloody night. It's New Year's Eve and a blizzard grips Detroit as the dilapidated Precinct 13 is about to be closed for good. Roenick, veteran cop Jasper O'Shea (Brian Dennehy) and precinct secretary Iris Ferry (Drea de Matteo of "The Sopranos" and "Joey") are the only staff left to make the final preparations to shut down the old building.

At the same time, a police prisoner bus carrying Bishop, buzzed-out junkie Beck (John Leguizamo), a hustler named Smiley (Jeffrey "Ja Rule" Atkins) and gang member Anna (Aisha Hinds) to a secure location is routed to the nearly abandoned Precinct 13 due to the raging storm.

Roenick reluctantly accepts the new prisoners, but tells the cops from the bus that the inmates are their problem, not his. That changes quickly when the civilians and the police inside Precinct 13 suddenly find themselves under siege from unknown outside forces.

The identity of the villains is the major difference from Carpenter's earlier version. (The new version also has a different setting; Carpenter's movie was set in Los Angeles.) In the original thriller the unknown forces turned out to be an angry street gang trying to free one of their own. In this updated version, the siege is being staged by rogue cops -- led by the corrupt Duvall -- who want to silence Bishop. The crime kingpin has been their partner in crime for years and now is in a position to blow their cover.

Ethan Hawke plays a cop who must combine forces with the criminal played by Fishburne.

Now, the cops and the criminals inside Precinct 13 must band together in order to survive the night. Blended into the mix is a beautiful police psychologist, Alex Sabian, played by Maria Bello. She has a complicated professional and personal relationship with Roenick. She ends up finding shelter in the precinct when her car breaks down.

Though the core of the drama is the uneasy union between Bishop and Roenick, "Assault" -- unlike most action flicks -- is truly an ensemble piece. Every player gets his or her moment in the spotlight, particularly when asked just how far they will go in order to maintain the alliance.

This is French director Jean-Francois Richet's first American production and his first film in English. (In fact, he had to learn basic English before he started filming.) The script is by American screenwriter James DeMonaco ("The Negotiator"). Between them, they have created a highly entertaining and fast-paced thriller reminiscent of some classic action/thrillers of the 1960s, such as "Bullitt" and "The Great Escape."

Moreover, the time frame -- just one night -- and the claustrophobic feeling created by the storm and the small precinct building add to the tension and drama.

The idea of not just having action for action's sake, but to have the story be plot- and character-driven, is highly welcomed in an age where things seem to go boom just for the hell of it.

"Assault on Precinct 13" is a good ride. It's a good old-fashioned shoot-'em-up with a few nice twists and some very good acting. Check it out and pass the popcorn.

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