Atmosphere is key in a thriller. The setting must be in a place where unease and tension can develop. Thanks to the grim camerawork by Robert Ganz, “Assault on Precinct 13” gains a much darker edge than one would think.
New Year’s Eve, 2004. The thirteenth precinct in Detroit is about to be closed down for good, and the last few stragglers are stuck riding out a vicious winter storm. The last holdouts include burned-out cop Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke), secretary Iris (Drea de Matteo), and old-timer Jasper O’Shea (Brian Dennehy). As the clock strikes midnight, a bus carrying prisoners has to make a stop at the precinct to find refuge from the storm. Among them is the notorious mob boss, Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne). That’s the least of their problems, however. It isn’t long after that a highly skilled and armed mob of corrupt cops has surrounded the building, intending on killing Bishop, and everyone else inside. Now, Jake must arm cops and criminals to defend themselves, but can they trust each other enough to stay alive?
The best thing about this film is its unpredictability. Although the mob outside sets the trap, the film’s real tension is about who can and can’t be trusted. Jake knows it’s not a good idea handing criminals weapons, but he doesn’t have a choice. Worse, could one of them be working for the cops outside? One thing that’s noteworthy is that it’s impossible to predict who is going to survive and who isn’t. Just because they are a big name or an important character doesn’t mean they’ll make it to the end.
The acting is adequate for the film’s purposes, although no one gives a truly standout performance. Ethan Hawke makes for a sympathetic hero. Laurence Fishburne uses his voice and especially his body language to prove that this is not a man to be taken lightly. Drea de Matteo looks great with a gun, and Maria Bello and Brian Dennehy provide able support. Gabriel Byrne is okay as the villain, but next to Fishburne, he comes across as plain.
The film isn’t flawless; there are a few dumb plot contrivances (they’re minor, but they’re there), and some of the cuts in the action scenes are a little too quick. And John Leguizamo is irritating as the “comic relief.” Not only is he not funny, his character is meant to provide humor where it is not needed.
This is a grim thriller. Very grim. It is dark and bleak almost to the point of becoming depressing. But it is very tense and suspenseful, and for those who are looking for something that will raise the pules for 100+ minutes, this gets the job done.