It's often been observed that American studios never really stopped putting out B-movies. They've simply given them A-movie casts and budgets that make them bigger, though seldom better. Following closely in the risible footsteps of Zack Snyder's smash-hit zombie remake Dawn Of The Dead, Assault On Precinct 13 is simply the latest and most glaring illustration of this principle. Like the new Dawn Of The Dead, Assault On Precinct 13 retains every hooky, marketable, and superficially attractive element from its source material while losing everything that made it special, from its aura of claustrophobic dread to its icy John Carpenter score to its tough, lean screenplay and indelibly sketched characters. Granted, Carpenter's brilliant 1976 original didn't feature Ja Rule as an inept jailbird who refers to himself in the third person, or John Leguizamo chewing jailhouse scenery as the same grating, overbearing motor-mouth he essentially plays in every movie, but those can scarcely be considered improvements.
Squandering some of the good will he engendered through Training Day and his films with Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke lends his Gen-X smirk to the role of a hard-drinking, pill-popping, out-of-control cop haunted by the death of a partner. Laurence Fishburne co-stars as a notorious gangsta who's targeted by a group of corrupt cops (led by Gabriel Byrne) out to kill Fishburne and anyone who gets in their way before he can testify against them.
Carpenter's original imbued a crackerjack modern-day urban Western with the primal menace of a horror movie, but the remake is boilerplate action fare fortified with groaning exposition, stock characters straight out of central casting, lame one-liners, and dime-store psychology that diminishes rather than deepens. Byrne's men look like highly trained killing machines outfitted with the latest high-tech gear, but they behave like the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, seldom killing swiftly and efficiently when they can linger around just long enough to get killed themselves. Just about the only one who emerges from this cynical, gratuitously violent space-filler with his dignity intact is Fishburne, whose minimalist performance gives his swaggering badass a serene, almost Zen calm. Like the original Assault, Fishburne is smart enough to leave much to the audience's imagination. If only the unnecessary remake he's stuck in had followed suit.