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'Precinct 13' shoots, misses

The new bullet-riddled remake of ''Assault on Precinct 13" is disappointing for a number of reasons. For one thing, it's silly. For another, it's not always silly enough to be diverting. But most underwhelming is the language. Everything from the profanity to the actual conversations sounds forced, as though it were all being directed by someone who just hasn't mastered the rhythmic art of American cursing.

Closer inspection reveals that the movie's ringmaster is Jean-Franois Richet, a French director making his Hollywood debut. While the violence hits many of its grisly and gritty marks, the talking is frequently inane. One of my favorites is when the testy lady gang-banger (Aisha Hinds) tells her cellmate (John Leguizamo), ''This ain't no blackout, junkie. There's something suspect going on. And I wanna know what the funk it is!" I'm not sure that would fly even in a Michael Bay production.

These two, along with a con artist (Jeffrey ''Ja Rule" Atkins) and a murderous criminal mastermind, Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), were being taken to a high-security prison. A huge snowstorm kicks up, however, and they're diverted to a decrepit, no-security Detroit police station that's about to be shut down. The sergeant on duty, Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke), takes them in but is bummed because Bishop is a cop killer; plus, it's New Year's Eve, and all he, the station secretary (Drea de Matteo), and the crusty, soon-to-retire veteran (Brian Dennehy) wanted to do was party.

Things go further south for Roenick and company after they discover that just outside their isolated building is a Richard Price-load of crooked cops, led by Gabriel Byrne, who want to silence Bishop before he rats them out. Hence the cut phone lines, titular assault, and ensuing melee. Along the way, other characters pop in and out of the station, folks like Roenick's high-strung shrink (Maria Bello), who was on her way to a party until her car breaks down.

The movie is desperate for us to think something is heating up between doctor and patient. But it would not be wrong to watch Hawke gaze at Bello and not get a flashback of his doing the same thing to Julie Delpy in ''Before Sunset." But his real acting foil is Fishburne, who brings out of Hawke a looser, less revelatory rendition of his rookie cop in ''Training Day."

Fishburne goes in the opposite direction of Denzel Washington, who in that movie saw fit to eat every ounce of scenery. Fishburne, dressed in a purple suit more appropriate on ex-pro footballer Michael Irvin or the Joker, simmers all his portentous lines. This dude is so heavy that Leguizamo's sweaty junkie calls him ''the black Rasputin." But with his infinite wisdom, unflappable demeanor, and awesome action-movie skills, he actually seems to have dropped by from the Matrix.

It's hard to come up with a reassuring explanation for the existence of this remake, which James DeMonaco has grossly overwritten. John Carpenter's 1976 original was close to perfect, pitting, among others, a mad dad against the vicious LA street gang that killed his little girl. Carpenter masterfully mined the visceral kick from pulp fiction, while tapping into the decade's preoccupation with the personal revenge fantasy. Its ruthlessness is still jarring.

What's most jarring about this ''Assault" is having to watch Dennehy try to find a more creative place to use the ''f" word than de Matteo and Ja Rule. When it's in motion, the remake is occasionally a sturdy piece of genre work, but it's hard to believe for a minute, with the villainous cops coming off as extraneously chatty. Carpenter's original was all action and little talk. No one in this movie knows when to shut up and shoot.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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