Ethan Hawke as Jake Roenick
Laurence Fishburne as Marion Bishop
Maria Bello as Alex Sabian
John Leguizamo as Beck
Drea de Matteo as Iris Ferry
Gabriel Byrne as Marcus Duvall
Brian Dennehy as Jasper O’Shea
Ja Rule as Smiley
Aisha Hinds as Anna
Assault on Precinct 13 takes its time setting up the characters and their situation, and the first third is the weakest. It’s filled with stock characters in stock situations and drags considerably. Roenick is an ex-undercover officer who’s burnt out after an operation went bad. Alex Sabian (Maria Bello) is his shrink, who acts tough and all knowing, but doesn’t really understand the pressure Roenick’s job has put him through. That sort of thing. Each character gets a tick to differentiate them, but that’s about as deep as the filmmakers go.
With the exception of Roenick’s introduction the film mostly sputters along until the lights go out in the station. When the corrupt cops do attack in force Assault on Precinct 13 finally comes to life and never stops again. As it moves along it rises above its rote beginnings to become engaging and entertaining.
In order to survive the cops inside the station must arm the criminals, and the characters take turns dealing with the threat on the outside and the potential threat inside as the tension builds. This leaves the villains mostly as blank slates, but they are not really missed.
Make no mistake, Assault on Precinct 13 is an action movie, not a thriller. It delves into character conflict and tightens screws, but only until the bullets start flying again. For the most part it plays predictable and reliable moments with just enough left turns to still be fresh and interesting. It’s often darkly funny as well.
Fishburne and Hawke are the best things about the film, particularly Fishburne who is ice-cube cool from his first scene to his last. Every moment he’s on screen is fun. Hawke’s intro is excellent, but he spends the next half-hour wallowing in standard burnt-out cop self-pity until the shooting starts. From there on in he’s engaging and fun and he and Fishburne have a great rapport. Still, it would be interesting if one of these films didn’t have a main character who’s burnt-out or on-the-edge. That’s what makes Fishburne’s Bishop so entertaining. He knows what he is and he has no qualms about it. He just does what he has to do.
Assault on Precinct 13 is fun, engaging, and a little clichéd, but amongst the recent crop of bland PG-13 action movies for the whole family, it stands tall as an example of how to do an action movie right.