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‘Assault’ is a rare remake that clicks

Hawke and Fishburne star as unlikely allies in this thriller. By John Hartl

Few B-movie classics are as compact and efficient as John Carpenter’s 1976 thriller, “Assault on Precinct 13.” Surely a remake can only pump it full of stars and special effects and cancel out its low-budget charm?

Surprise: Rather miraculously, the brand-new 21st Century remake of  “Assault” doesn't betray its source. It’s almost as tight and ruthless as the original, and the use of stars doesn’t hurt at all. Indeed, the performances are stronger and more professional here than they were in the original, with Ethan Hawke, Maria Bello, Gabriel Byrne and Laurence Fishburne standouts in a carefully selected cast.

The location has been changed from Los Angeles to snowbound Detroit, the occasion is New Year’s Eve, but the conflicts are essentially the same. Cops and convicts, trapped in the same rundown jail, fight off an assault by implacable forces that sometimes resemble the relentless zombies of “Night of the Living Dead.” There’s even a murder that’s as sudden and shocking as the killing of a child in the 1976 film.

Hawke, playing a wounded policeman who has retreated to a desk job after an undercover drug deal went south, makes an unexpectedly acceptable action hero. Bello finds bravery and vulnerability beneath the jazzy surface of a shrink who thinks she understands his guilt. Brian Dennehy rises above Irish-cop cliches to establish a paternal relationship with Hawke; Drea de Matteo (the doomed Adriana from “The Sopranos”) also gets beyond the limitations of her role as a party-girl receptionist.

Byrne is jaw-droppingly heartless as a corrupt cop, while Fishburne brings a scary authority to the role of a cynical crime lord who has been imprisoned. For reasons that aren’t instantly apparent, he’s the chief target of a well-equipped gang that has a massacre in mind. Among the other prisoners, who are temporarily set free to play “Dirty Dozen” roles in self-defense, John Leguizamo makes the most vivid (and deliberately annoying) impression.

The original “Assault” had its origins in a series of Westerns, beginning five decades ago with “High Noon” and “Rio Bravo,” that explored the limits and responsibilities of lawmen facing a dire threat. That theme is still very much present in the new film, as Hawke’s character blends elements that John Wayne and Gary Cooper brought to their tense 1950s showdowns.

In 1976, the Western setting was abandoned and the story turned urban and contemporary. Yet even that version plays like a period piece when compared to the latest “Assault,” which cleverly dramatizes the advantages and failures of modern technology. When these Detroit cops lose the use of their cellphones, you know they’re in trouble.

The new “Assault” is the work of a French director, Jean-Francois Richet (“All About Love”), and screenwriter James DeMonaco (“The Negotiator”). Their confidence in the material, and the twists and tweaks they’ve used to update it, is evident from the jittery opening scene. Only an overextended, borderline-sentimental ending, which spells out what we already knew about the two central characters, seems like a mistake.