The introduction of the about-to-retire cop in Assault on Precinct 13 is a bad sign. Actually, back up: The mid-January release of an action flick starring Ethan Hawke and Drea de Matteo is a terrible sign.
Thing is, director Jean-François Richet doesn’t let you get your scoff on for even a second: In an opening so abrupt you’ll likely think it’s another trailer, Hawke—is that Hawke?—appears greasy and gaunt, his face filling the screen as his character tweaks his way through a historically inaccurate sales pitch about how his product is “the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María” of drugs and that its buyers will be, um, “Magellan.” Richet’s handheld camera then pans around a trashed living room, showing a young woman passed out on the couch and a couple of lowlifes beginning to look suspicious. Soon the narc’s jig is up, resulting in a furious exchange of expletives and gunfire. A bullet blows out the back of someone’s head. The young woman is again lying down, this time in a pool of blood.
But then the movie flashes forward, and that AARPer shows up.
Surprisingly, it actually takes a whole lot longer for Assault on Precinct 13 to go downhill. Until then—and perhaps even after then—action fans sick of Oscar-baiting biopics and post-holiday dreck should be pleased. Even if they didn’t know that this is a remake of a 1976 John Carpenter film, they’d probably have guessed that any movie with the word “assault” in its title isn’t going to be a lighthearted romp. (Possible exception: Assault of the Party Nerds.) Richet’s film is funny, yes, but more important, it’s unapologetically violent. Storywise, he and screenwriter James DeMonaco may not have borrowed a whole lot from Carpenter—but the grisly bloodshed and slasher-worthy body count? Check.
Whereas Carpenter’s film told of a gang seeking retaliation against the police (and was itself a sorta-remake of Howard Hawks’ 1959 John Wayne vehicle, Rio Bravo), DeMonaco recasts the under-siege plot to involve cop-on-cop action. Hawke plays Jake Roenick, a Detroit sergeant who took a desk job after his leg and sanity got screwed up in the opening scene’s botched drug bust months earlier. Now drinking on duty, popping pills, and apparently making no therapeutic progress with his foxy psychiatrist, Dr. Alex Sabian (Maria Bello), Jake doesn’t care that he’s stuck at his crappy precinct on New Year’s Eve, the last night the station’s to be open. Stuck with him are curmudgeonly Irishman Jasper O’Shea (Brian Dennehy), who tells the others that this is his last night, too, and miniskirted secretary Iris (de Matteo), whose first scene shows her on a ladder, hanging decorations and finishing an anecdote with, “Impulsive sex is in our genes, boys!”
Jake, Jasper, and Iris, essentially babysitting the nearly nonfunctional station, just want to get drunk. But then a busload of prisoners, unable to travel farther in an increasingly nasty winter storm, is instructed to crash at Precinct 13 for the night. Among small-time felons including a dealer (John Leguizamo) and an all-purpose hustler (Ja Rule) is notorious cop-killer Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne). When a couple of masked gunmen sneak in and start shootin’ the place up, Jake guesses that they’re there for Bishop. And, whether perked up by the pills or spurred by Alex’s earlier taunt of “You will never be the cop you used to be!” Jake decides to prove her wrong.
Assault on Precinct 13 whizzes by in its first hour, fueled by one-liners (a prisoner on the slip-slidin’ bus tells the driver, “Hey, Ray Charles, slow this motherfucker down!”), tough-guy speeches (“We have to put them all down. Without pause. Without regard!”), and the tension that builds when the good guys realize that their crumbling station is basically surrounded by people with big guns—make that really big guns. The holiday setting gives de Matteo and Bello an excuse to look appealingly slutty (though why Dr. Alex changes from boots to heels to wait for a tow truck is anybody’s guess), Fishburne’s oily evilness makes up for his lameness in the Matrix sequels, and Hawke is Reality Bites– grungy, even after getting a sudden case of the morals. Jokes, hot chicks, and badasses—so far, so good.
Soon, though, the plot contrivances that seemed excusable at the start—no cell service?—get a little harder to buy. That police stations keep a large supply of gasoline on hand, for instance, will probably be a revelation even to the scanner-listening set, and a last-minute whoops-I-forgot-about-this-way-out-of-the-building development is ludicrous. Worse, the violence that initially made the movie feel gritty and shocking starts getting repetitive: Richet is awfully fond of point-blank shootings, exit-hole spurts, and solitary trickles of blood oozing from forehead bullet holes, and the ol’ gun-packing Mexican standoff has been done so many times in the past decade it’s laughable. (As is Iris’ response to stress: “I can’t stop thinking about sex!”) More galling, however, is the illogical morality behind the remake’s Big Twist, which hinges on one too many shifting alliances. In the end, Assault on Precinct 13 earns its January placement after all: It shows early promise but then falls apart like a New Year’s resolution.
Spanish director Miguel Albaladejo’s Bear Cub has a few surprising elements, too—but none more so than its apparent desire to be a wholesome family dramedy. Its setup, involving a timid boy who finds himself in a custody battle after his dipshit mom is detained in India, screams guidance filmstrip—if guidance class ever involved undemonized pot smoking and bathhouse sex among burly gay men.
Bear Cub’s opening scene, two fat, hairy dudes getting graphically busy in a third guy’s bed, is obviously no indication what’s to, er, come. But even though Albaladejo’s script, co-written by Salvador García Ruiz, ends up being high on melodrama—as if a druggie mother, gay uncle, and estranged alcoholic grandma weren’t enough for the kid to deal with, HIV is a last-act addition to the mix—its admirable refusal to either sugarcoat or scold the imperfect characters’ behavior keeps it from feeling too contrived.
Pedro (José Luis García-Pérez) is the gay uncle in question, a single Madrid dentist who enjoys an active social life in the bear subculture. He agrees to take in 9-year-old Bernardo (David Castillo) for two weeks while his “flaky” sister Violeta (Elvira Lindo) travels with her new boyfriend. Neither Bernardo nor Pedro is thrilled about the situation, with the youngster worried about being away from his mother for so long and the bachelor concerned that his style will be effectively cramped. But by the time Pedro gets word that Violeta has been caught with drugs and indefinitely incarcerated, uncle and nephew have settled into each other nicely and are willing to stay together until Mom can return.
Bear Cub doesn’t go for happily ever after, however. And even though Pedro and Bernardo form a bond, their household, mercifully, isn’t of the syrupy sitcom variety: Pedro may get a little uptight when a friend begins rolling a joint in front of Bernardo (though the kid responds that he’s rolled some with his mom), but he still has a sometime-lover stay with him while he’s in town. And when Pedro’s gang starts to miss him, they throw a surprise party complete with entertainment for the kid—of the energy-draining sort that will ensure he’ll pass out in their company so Pedro can then go cruising for a few hours.
Most refreshing, though, is the relationships between the adults and Bernardo, who is neither übercharming nor impish, but rather the monosyllabic dope that most 9-year-old boys are. Yet no one here talks down to him: Violeta is open about her brother’s homosexuality, Pedro tells him the truth about his mother’s situation, and in one of the film’s most touching scenes, Bernardo talks about a girl at school and asks Pedro when he knew he was gay.
The script’s strong characters are skillfully fleshed out by the cast, with standouts including Castillo, who deftly handles Bernardo in his film debut, and García-Pérez, who makes Pedro’s development from satisfied SINK to good father figure low-key and convincing. Bear Cub’s flirtation with movie-of-the-weekness may seem puzzling, but Albaladejo proves that even the most cringe-inducing decisions can sometimes seem right.CP