18 August 2008

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (Dir. Jean-Francois Richet, 2006, US) - Remakes, John Carpenter and Ethan Hawke

Hollywood and remakes have become synonymous culprits in a game of gradual artistic decline that has besieged writers, actors and directors everywhere in the world today. It is not just Hollywood that continues to revisit cinema of the past, but Bollywood has become notorious for the countless remakes or should I say ‘reboots’ they have been churned out over the last few years. With the market place risky as ever, it has become increasingly difficult for producers to predict or determine what will succeed at the box office. Remaking an old product seems like one of the safest means of limiting the chance of box office failure especially when you consider how much easier it is for the marketing gurus to create a campaign around a film that already holds some degree of cultural, cinematic and nostalgic value for audiences. However, many films that have been remade by Hollywood recently have either died at the box office or end up being loathed by the critics. Obviously, remaking classic cinema always seems to irk the film critics into a vitriolic rant concerning the lack of originality, ideas and inspiration evident in today’s cinema.

Hollywood has been responsible for a number of notorious and controversial remakes that many have labelled as utterly pointless, damaging the status of the original film. This statement proved to be true when writer-director Neil La Bute decided to remake the classic British horror film, ‘The Wicker Man’, with Nicolas Cage as the main lead, provoking a reaction that bordered on outright disgust. Damned by the critics, when the film flopped, a DVD version titled ‘The Directors Cut’ was released soon after in a last ditch effort to claw back some of the money that had been invested into a momentously hopeless and uninspiring project.

This summer saw the release of ‘The Hulk’ with Edward Norton, another remake of a film that had only recently been made with Ang Lee at the helm. The studio felt the Ang Lee ‘Hulk’ movie was not really the blockbuster franchise they had hoped for, as it was a genuinely emotional film, and should have had a more enduring effect on audiences. Crazy as it seems, but the new Hulk film is not a patch on the Ang Lee version and neither did it make as much money at the box office. Perhaps this is because a French guy who likes to call himself Louis Letterier was hired to direct the new Hulk reboot, a filmmaker who graduated into the mainstream by achieving moderate success with a Jason Statham actioneer inventively titled ‘The Transporter’.

To date, every 1960s retro cool ‘Michael Caine’ film that Hollywood has decided to remake have in no way been able to step out of the shadows of the ‘classic status’ of films like ‘Get Carter’ and ‘The Italian Job’. Incidentally, the Michael Caine films remade with Jude Law in the main lead have all but flopped at the box office; ‘Alfie’ and ‘Sleuth’ were also damned by the critics for excessive displays of narcissism as performed by an over eager star who has real difficulty in choosing the right projects. Sometimes, Hollywood can get it right with remakes, and when this usually happens, it throws the critical reputation of the original film into jeopardy, as was the case with ‘The Hills Have Eyes’, a Wes Craven 70s example of extreme horror cinema, a film that wasn’t that good to begin with. This seemed like a wise move by Alexandre Aja, a French filmmaker who received rave reviews for his twisted serial killer film, ‘Haute Tension/Switchblade Romance’, to remake a film whose critical reputation was somewhat suspect but still anchored by an interesting concept.

John Carpenter’s back catalogue of brilliantly effective low budget high concept exploitation films like ‘Halloween’ and ‘The Fog’ have recently been remade by Hollywood, but Carpenter’s cult thriller ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ was one film that was ripe for a make over. Interestingly, Carpenter always referred to his film as a rip off Howard Hawks classic John Wayne western ‘Rio Bravo’, and so you could almost forgive the director for wanting to remake a film that sought its primary inspiration from the masters of old Hollywood studio cinema. What made Carpenter’s original film such a taut thriller was the fact it was not a fussy film, in that it was lean, economical and lasted just under ninety minutes.

Directed by Jean-Francois Richet, a relatively unknown European filmmaker, ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ is a successful remake because it does not aspire to be anything different, closely adhering to the original premise of a police station besieged by a group of anonymous killers. The cast is made up of a gallery of earnest and reliable Hollywood actors including Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, Gabriel Byrne and John Leguizamo. Ethan Hawke is a very patchy actor and has never been any good at showing emotional depth to the roles he has played; his career was luckily salvaged by Richard Linklater who was brave enough to cast him in the cult romantic film, ‘Before Sunrise’ and more recently in the follow up, ‘Before Sunset’. Even in ‘Training Day’, Ethan Hawke looked out of place as the obedient rookie cop, unable to compete against the towering and charismatic presence of Denzel Washington. In ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, he plays the archetypal embittered, drunk police officer who is unable to escape from a tragic drug bust that went terribly wrong, leading to the death of his colleagues.

Such predictable characterisation never stops the film from becoming lazy and ineffectual, building to a resolution that is purely generic and deeply satisfying. Though I am not a great fan of remakes, this one seems to be entertaining and fascinating to compare to the original, transforming itself into forgettable but exciting mainstream cinema.

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