Ignore the lame rhyme at the end of Assault on Precinct 13: "Wow, what an ending!" It's an ill fitting description for Jean-François Richet's film, only the beginning of which has anything going for it.
The camera narrows in on Ethan Hawke delivering a profanity laden rant while conducting a drug deal in a Detroit apartment. Hawke has a hyped up, faintly menacing air here, a pleasant change from his typical grab bag of characters. But the sequence ends when the thugs realizes Hawke is actually undercover cop Jake Roenick. A shootout ensues eventually leading outside the building and results in the death of two cops accompaning Roenick. As he screams for help, the camera pans out to reveal the dingy alley surrounding him and the multitude of apartments above. Someone must have heard the shots and screams and the sense of gritty realism disappears.
The movie is similar to many of its il, with a familiar plot, and it's not just because this is a remake. After the shoot out, the setting shifts eight months later, where Roenick is at work in the titular precinct on New Year's Eve, having taken on a desk job. A blizzard rages outside, and two cops transport some criminals, among them gangster Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne). They seek refuge inside, until the weather clears. The festive mood shatters when two armed and masked men break into the building. They head for Bishop's cell before the cops force them to flee. Puzzled that the thugs remain outside in their vehicle, Roenick pursues and ultimately kills one of them, only to discover the victim is one of his own. He confronts Bishop on the matter, who reveals the deceased as a cop out to kill the kingpin for fear he will reveal his nefarious dealings with a group of crooked cops.
Their initial plot having failed, much like in the movie, everyone in the precinct is now at risk because they're witnesses. The lines of communication are down and other crooked cops appear shortly, placing the precinct under siege. With no prospect of outside help arriving, prisoners and police must cooperate if they are going to survive.
Too bad must of the action doesn't resonate. Several unexpected deaths do occur, but the casualties are all too poorly developed for any real emotional resonance. Attempts at comic relief, such as a prisoner persistently refering to himself in the third person fall flat. Ja Rule just makes a poor case for casting rappers with his lacklustre performance. As the precinct's secretary, The Sopranos' Drea de Matteo shows some steel which is a welcome contrast to the whiny Adriana on that show, and Maria Bello descends convincingly into panic from nonchalance as Roenick's psychiatrist. But the performances of Fishburne and Brian Dennehy as a veteran cop are very much in the tradition of their past work, as is the genial personality Hawke displays once he forgoes his undercover persona. Fishburne plays it so cool it's hard to believe cops who have been dealing with him for ten years might think he would ever crack a deal with the prosecution. Clearly, he answers to no one.
Another gem of a line in the rap ending: "They thought they was winning but they really was losing." The filmmakers are likely unaware how fitting this is. Good as the first few minutes of Assault on Precinct 13 are, they can't salvage the mess that follows.