Movies reviewed this week: Assault on Precinct 13, Elektra, and In Good Company
Like the recent remake of Dawn of the Dead, like the still more recent one of Flight of the Phoenix, the new Assault on Precinct 13 patterns itself after a legitimately, a defensibly good movie. Unrepeatably good. Unmatchably good. Any sign of taste and intelligence in the apparent appreciation of the John Carpenter original, 1976, will be cancelled out by blindness or insensitivity to its unique qualities, a model of resourcefulness on a shoestring budget, perfectly weighted, built for speed. The new prologue, detailing a narcotics sting gone sour, tells you immediately to scale back your expectations. Its visual fireworks -- all jiggly cameras and jittery cuts -- settle down, thankfully, allowing the spectator to do the same, as soon as we get to the central situation, New Year's Eve on the last night at a defunct Detroit police station, stripped of its staff and gutted of its communications system, but obliged by a crippling snowstorm to shelter a busload of prisoners for the night, including in particular a bad-ass cop killer. An armed siege begins, à la the Alamo, and continues throughout the night.
But the revised plot, just to give the new team of filmmakers some Creative Input, has been altered for minimum interest and sense. The besiegers are no longer an insatiable street gang, but are now policemen themselves, the members of the elite Organized Crime and Racketeering unit, bent on snuffing out the cop killer not because he has killed a cop but because he can blow the whistle on their collusion with him. It takes all the terror out of the terrorism. A specific goal, a quenchable bloodthirst, an air of reason. The deskbound sergeant (wounded in the prologue, psychologically as well as ballistically) who refuses to release the cop killer when at first he assumes the attackers are the killer's allies, cannot claim the same scruples when he finds out they are actually the killer's enemies. And on the other side, a squad of policemen could surely gain easier entry to a police station than by stealth and by force. Further plot twists tie themselves up in nonsense. (The "inside" man would have had numberless opportunities to put an end to the siege, even before it began.) Still, the movie is more bearable than those other remakes mentioned above. It moves right along, under the imported director, Jean-François Richet. (Whose French heritage, however, does not guarantee he will partake in Carpenter's hommages to that auteurist treasure, Rio Bravo.) The action is rough and ruthless, if at times a bit idiotic. The snowstorm effects are no less evocative than those in The Polar Express. And there are good contributions from Laurence Fishburne, authoritatively menacing as the cop killer, John Leguizamo as a comic-relief junkie, Maria Bello as a police psychologist with an obsessive-compulsive disorder of her own, all dolled up for a New Year's Eve party, and Drea de Matteo as a hot-to-trot police secretary. Ethan Hawke, on the other hand, is in the lead. Reason enough for desertion.
Elektra resurrects the character of that name, not from Greek tragedy, but from the superhero fantasy of a couple of years ago, Daredevil. Resurrects, literally. Just because she got herself killed off, back then, doesn't mean the spinoff has been relegated to a prequel: "Somebody must have brought her back from the dead." Apart from chief screenwriter Zak Penn and director Rob Bowman, that somebody would be a hoary-headed martial-arts guru by the name of Shtick -- oops, I meant Stick -- who horns in on the sightless gimmick of the Daredevil himself, not to mention Zatoichi, not to mention Neo in the third Matrix episode, not to mention others, and who is seen in flashback passing his hands an inch above the heroine's lifeless body, as if to levitate it. Et voilà, she's back in business, in her trademark red-leather outfit, with bare midriff, her long tresses and tattery topcoat flapping in the slow-motion breeze, somehow concealing on her person a pair of throwable twenty-four-inch tridents. The world's highest-paid assassin, she has the power to transport herself from here to there without moving (so to speak), and she can do the Matrix trick of dodging bullets like a matador. Even so, she spends a lot of time pumping those arms and legs, running at top speed toward or away from the henchmen of The Hand, the current name for the eternal Forces of Evil, and she keeps herself in fighting trim through such mundane exercises as one-arm pull-ups and skipping rope. She is still, of course, Jennifer Garner (sans Ben), built like a railroad spike and just as cuddly, with her chest thrust out in the manner of a teenager impatient with her growth.
That last characteristic is significant, inasmuch as the film emerges, from the depths of its muddy color and shadowy cinematography, as a continuation of last year's line of empowerment trips for early adolescent girls, one of which, 13 Going on 30, featured the same leading lady. This new one brings together a thirteen-year-old and a thirty-year-old on the same screen at the same time, when the heroine opts to cancel her "contract" on a handsome widower and a motherless daughter who reminds the heroine of herself, in her younger days, and opts instead to take up their defense. (The plot in a single line of dialogue: "Mark and his daughter Abby are being chased by The Hand.") Besides insecure young girls, it might appeal to indefatigable fantasists of both sexes who believe there can be no such thing as too many Marvel Comics movies. But I am only guessing. If I went further and said that the two-dimensional animal tattoos that spring to three-dimensional life are a passably poetic effect, I'd be straining myself for something nice to say.
In Good Company puts a new spin on the old boss's-daughter romance. Not just new, but contemporary, up-to-date, timely, topical. The romancer is now the boss himself -- a fast-track junior executive fresh out of business school and still wet behind the ears -- and the daughter's father is now the romancer's underling, an old-school backslapping glad-handing salesman twice his boss's age. The relationship with the college-age daughter really takes a backseat to the relationship between the men: "I think you have the potential," the pipsqueak throws a bone to the graybeard, "to be an awesome wingman here." Dennis Quaid seems a touch heavy for comedy, or for drama, either, come to that, but he makes sure you always clearly understand his position. Topher Grace, a shade too nice and naive to have climbed so far so fast, still too much the hometown boy of Win a Date with Tad Hamilton, has scads of charm, albeit of an overpracticed, unctuous, sitcommy type. And the alabaster-complected Scarlett Johansson keeps her lips inflated and her waist whittled, the very model of the Girl Next Door down at Androids R Us. The direction by Paul Weitz, who also wrote the smart script, shows abundant evidence of a mind at work, making connections, drawing parallels, placing emphasis, finding significance. He had a long way to go to live down American Pie and Down to Earth, but if About a Boy took a step in the right direction, this one has earned him a fresh start.