An 'Assault' on the senses

Remake of police thriller is flashier - but not better.

We all poke fun at remakes, but there's one virtue they all have - a chance to see how the same story is treated at different points in movie history.

The new version of "Assault on Precinct 13" offers a good example. Sticking with the basic premise of John Carpenter's original, released in 1976, it centers on a broken-down police station scheduled to be shut down.

Directed by French filmmaker Jean-François Richet in his English-language debut, the 2005 edition changes the time of the tale to New Year's Eve, providing a vaguely portentous hint that the outcome of the story's struggle has some Larger Significance than simple life or death for the people engaged in it.

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Once again the precinct is under siege by criminals who seem better armed than the folks inside, a motley mixture of cops and crooks, including a dangerous killer stashed away for the night in a holding pen.

Carpenter wrote, directed, and composed the music for the original "Assault" two years before making "Halloween," a horror-film masterpiece. Although they fall into different genres, those two thrillers have a lot in common - straightforward plots, unpretentious acting, and streamlined storytelling that's crisp, clear, and uncomplicated.

Some of the alterations wrought by Mr. Fichet and scenarist James DeMonaco in their "Assault" rehash are minor: The criminals orchestrating the siege are trying to free the felon, not take revenge on a grieving father who earlier lashed out at one of their own. And so on.

Two larger differences are a big-name cast with the likes of Gabriel Byrne, Maria Bello, John Leguizamo, and Drea de Matteo replacing the mostly obscure performers in the original; and the treatment of violence, which is far more explicit in 2005 than the first time around. The racial dynamics are also a little skewed by the main villain (Laurence Fishburne) now being black and the main policeman (Ethan Hawke) now being white.

It's all energetically filmed, but I miss the cool, modest clarity of the first version. Bigger isn't always better, even at the movies.

Rated R; contains violence and vulgarity.

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