It’s bad enough that Hollywood Reporter has announced a remake of Assault on Precinct 13, one of the goofiest and grittiest John Carpenter films to come out of the 1970s. It’s bad enough that Ethan “Whiny Caucasian is My Middle Name” Hawke is slated to star in it. But the true crime here is that Carpenter’s racial dyanamic has been drastically altered for a safer, reactionary age.
One of the beautiful things about Carpenter’s film is that, much like Night of the Living Dead‘s African-American protagonist (whose race was never addressed), Carpenter had the guts to cast Austin Stoker in the aw-shucks, do-goodin’ sheriff role and the white-bread Darwin Joston in the criminal role of Napoleon Wilson (whose unlikely first name was never explained, despite Joston’s repeated offers to “tell you sometime”). Beyond Assault‘s unapologetic shooting of a kid and its guns daringly prodding out of moving cars (in 1976, no less), the film improved upon what could have been just an entertaining low-budget ripoff of Rio Bravo by taking the sheriff-criminal buddy movie dynamic and casting against racial type. It was a nice way of acknowledging the camaraderie, while very subtly suggesting to an exploitation film audience that ultimately one’s skin color didn’t matter when up against a common evil. Who needed Walter Brennan for comedy relief when you had black man and white man trying to defend an abandoned outpost? (Laurie Zimmer’s presence is a side issue I won’t go into.)
Laurence Fishburne’s a great actor, but to cast him as the criminal in the remake and Hawke (any Caucasian for that matter, but especially Hawke, an actor who, let’s face it, we all needed to see bitch-slapped by Denzel in Training Day) reinforces the terrible precedent that Carpenter was working against. Did we learn nothing from the multicultural universe of The Matrix: Reloaded? Did we learn nothing from Lando Calrissian? I fear that Fishburne will come off not so much as a goofball asking for a smoke, but as a mean bastard who momentarily mends his ways, ultimately with his own interests at heart.
One other major change involves this: “As the sun sets and a long night begins, a motley crew of policemen and prisoners reluctantly captained by a cop (Hawke) must band together to fight off a rogue gang that wants to free the mobster.”
Anyone who saw the original knows that the gang simply came out of nowhere and that Napoleon Wilson wasn’t even one of their concerns. Napoleon was just the wrong guy in the wrong place.
But Hollywood, somehow believing that the audience needs explanation, has modified Carpenter’s agile balance to appease their suburban focus groups. Once again, we’ll see an African-American helping Whity, his benevolent protector, and then abdicating back to a state of serfdom.
Criminal, I say. Outright criminal.