on Precinct 13
Who the hell is Jean-François Richet? Many fans of American action cinema are wondering about the identity of this mysterious upstart who nursed the dream of remaking Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) for almost a decade – and even managed to obtain the blessing of its original writer-director, John Carpenter.
In fact, Richet is something of a phenomenon in France. His My 6-T Goes Bang (aka Crack City, 1997) is similar, but in every respect superior, to Matthieu Kassovitz's better-known La Haine (1995). Richet brought a sharper, more militant sense of politics, as well as a bolder, experimental style, to the volatile mixture of alienated teenagers, drugs, crime and street violence.
His follow-up film, De l'amour (2001), was a career misstep, but this exciting version of Assault on Precinct 13 puts him back at the forefront of innovative, mainstream cinema.
The premise of the original Assault was proudly filched by Carpenter from Howard Hawks' classic Western, Rio Bravo (1959). Just as a motley crew of law enforcers is about to close down a decrepit, suburban jail, several criminal offenders – and, in particular, the crime lord Bishop (Laurence Fishburne) – have to be kept there overnight. And then a mysterious, relentless siege on the jail begins.
As in the original, there is a range of intriguing characters with diverse problems. Jake (Ethan Hawke) is fearful and dependent on drugs after an on-the-job trauma in his past. Iris (Drea de Matteo) is a sexy cop with a hankering for "bad boys". And Jasper (Brian Dennehy), on the eve of retirement, is beyond any politically-correct compassion for the underclasses.
But Richet gives the plot a fundamental twist – it is crooked cops, not street gangs, attacking the jail – that changes its entire meaning. This is a bravely political reworking of the original film – with its left-wing speeches cleverly, slyly put in the mouth of the zaniest character, conspiracy-nut Beck (John Leguizamo).
Fans of the original may be blindsided by the fact that there is so little allusion to Carpenter's style or themes – unless it is to the all-round, huis clos paranoia of The Thing (1982) rather than Assault. In fact, the fractured, disorienting style of this film is closer to Gaspar Noé (Irreversible, 2002) than any action film of recent years.
However, when it comes to American influences, Richet declares in the choice of cast and crew his true, twin masters: Abel Ferrara and Brian De Palma. Memories of dynamic movies including King of New York (1990), 'R Xmas (2001) and Carlito's Way (1993) fill this Assault. Richet even benefits from using an editor (Bill Pankow) who has worked extensively with both his heroes.
I suspect that Richet's version of Assault can only be fully appreciated if one is familiar with the mid-'90s cultural moment in France from which this director sprang. As for many critics and filmmakers of his ilk, there is no contradiction in Richet's mind involved in loving, all at once, John Woo, Sergei Eisenstein, comic books, Karl Marx, rap music and avant-garde art.
And that's the kind of unlikely, magic combination we need more of in popular culture today.
© Adrian Martin March 2005