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Feature: Revisiting a classic

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   Jan. 19, 2005 at 7:38 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 19 (UPI) -- The new feature film "Assault on Precinct 13" appears to be a high-tech version of John Carpenter's 1976 movie of the same name, but in many ways it's a contemporary showcase for some of Hollywood's most enduring storytelling conventions.

Carpenter's low-budget feature -- which came out two years before "Halloween" established his reputation as a top writer-director of Hollywood horror-thrillers -- was itself something of a remake. The story of a siege on a police station, requiring police and criminals to team up against an armed assault, it was loosely based on Howard Hawks' classic 1959 Western "Rio Bravo."

Hawks himself revisited the storyline in 1966 with "El Dorado," which -- like "Rio Bravo" -- starred Hollywood icon John Wayne as a lawman who has to overcome personal troubles of his own to save the day.

James DeMonaco, who wrote the screenplay for the new version of "Assault on Precinct 13," is a big fan not only of Hawks' versions of the story, but also of Carpenter's.

"It was the first video I ever rented," he said in an interview with United Press International. "I was 12."

He said his father introduced him later to "Rio Bravo."

"When I learned that Carpenter's 'Assault' had lineage to 'Rio Bravo,'" he said, "I had an affinity for that."

In the new movie, directed by French filmmaker Jean-Francois Richet, the central figure is played by Ethan Hawke. DeMonaco said the character -- a former undercover cop with psychological problems stemming from a past drug bust gone bad -- is actually a blend of Wayne's character and the alcoholic, rundown gunslinger played in "Rio Bravo" by Dean Martin.

"He's the great shooter who lost his way," said DeMonaco. "That's what Ethan responded to. In one of the biggest 'hero moments' -- where he starts talking about barricading the precinct -- he pops a pill. He's still got his crutch."

DeMonaco said the participation of Hawke -- an Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actor in 2001 for "Training Day" -- was key to getting "Assault on Precinct 13" made.

"Once Ethan came on everybody was jumping in around him," he said.

The cast also includes Laurence Fishburne, a Best Actor nominee in 1993 for "What's Love Got to Do with It," and Drea de Matteo, who became a star playing Adriana La Cerva on the HBO drama series "The Sopranos." Gabriel Byrne plays a corrupt cop who leads the assault on the precinct headquarters to take out a suspect -- Fishburne -- who has threatened to expose their criminal partnership.

Although he is a fan of Carpenter's "Assault on Precinct 13," DeMonaco -- who wrote the 1998 Kevin Spacey-Samuel L. Jackson thriller "The Negotiator" -- said he wanted his version to be more story-oriented, with more emphasis on character development.

"(Carpenter's movie) is kind of plotless," he said. "It's a visceral experience. Good guys team up with prisoners. That's really the only thing we take from the original."

One thing DeMonaco and Richet were not about to avoid was the conventional nature of the story. On the other hand, the central character's drug and alcohol consumption -- and the general atmosphere of corruption surrounding the police culture depicted in the movie -- tend to make the picture "subversive," in DeMonaco's estimation.

The depiction of violence easily outdoes what Carpenter delivered in 1976. DeMonaco said that was due to a combination of a larger budget and more up-to-date filmmaking technology.

"By Hollywood standards we didn't have nearly as much as the big action movies," he said, "but we had much more than John."

"Assault on Precinct 13" continues a tradition begun in the late 1960s by such filmmakers as Sam Peckinpah, whose "The Wild Bunch" helped break barriers against graphic depiction of violence. It also calls to mind Peckinpah's 1971 collaboration with Dustin Hoffman, "Straw Dogs," in which a mild-mannered man takes about all he can take from a gang of tormenters before turning violent himself.

One critic at the time complained that Peckinpah had set up the bad guys as "straw men," taking an easy route to giving the audience a cheap cathartic thrill -- the specter of Hoffman blowing away evildoers who had it coming.

DeMonaco said that was not his intention with "Assault on Precinct 13." For example, he said he tried to draw the leader of the corrupt cop ring as conflicted over the need to attack fellow officers in the interest of protecting himself from prosecution.

"I didn't want to just set up these guys who, one by one, we just want to see them die," said DeMonaco.

--

(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

© 2005 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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