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.

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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