Pro Formula

Assault on Precinct 13 and Coach Carter are movies in two familiar genres—the cynical action thriller and the heartwarming education melodrama—which might make them too easy to flick aside with a sophisticated sneer. But that would be a mistake, since each of these seeming formula productions is saved by bursts of energy and inventiveness smoldering within, especially standout performances by Laurence Fishburne and Samuel L. Jackson as (respectively) a dapper criminal and a role-model educator.

Black actors are forever having to either deflate roles that pump them up into gassy bores (I’m thinking of Don Cheadle’s heroic struggle against Hotel Rwanda’s solo-hero-worship) or debase them with movie-land clichés about their innate street-wisdom (I’m also thinking of the way Morgan Freeman adroitly avoids a dreadful nice-old-black-sidekick stereotype in Million Dollar Baby). What Fishburne and Jackson do with the roles they have here demonstrates how to transcend hack conventions, and at their best moments, the movies around them do the same.

Assault is a remake of John Carpenter’s 1976 thriller about a condemned police station house under attack. But where Carpenter’s original Precinct was hailed as a gritty B-movie homage to Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo (ah, the seventies, and their auteurist rhetorical flourishes!), the new one has no such pretensions: It’s simply an astringent action flick that uses the wounded sensitivity of Ethan Hawke and Fishburne’s witty hauteur to give the shoot-’em-up scenes some juice.

The premise is simple: A few law-abiders (including Hawke as a burned-out undercover agent; Brian Dennehy as a smiley old vet copper; Drea de Matteo as an oversexed secretary; and Maria Bello, cast as a psychologist but really present, I should be more dismayed than I am to say, to wear a low-cut dress and stiletto heels) are forced to unite with the criminals in their midst, including Fishburne as a cagey crime kingpin and John Leguizamo as a chatty druggie. They battle a common enemy attacking the crumbling, bare-bones precinct, a gaggle of rogue cops led by Gabriel Byrne.

Byrne’s motives are irrelevant to this summary because Precinct is all about the zinging bullets. The women don’t fare well under Jean-François Richet’s direction—really, poor Drea: From The Sopranos to Joey to having to say, “I fuck bad boys”; this kid needs to stop the downward spiral—but he’s better with the boys. Hawke plays against his two Sunset movies by letting his sensitivity shrivel into bitter self-reproach; he’s incapable of making a decision (that’s why he’s Bello’s patient), and it takes this crisis to crack his neurosis. I love the moment when he takes a shot in the arm and seems genuinely stunned and angry at himself for being such an easy target.

But best of all is Fishburne’s imperious reserve, less oppressive here than in the Matrix movies. He’s confronted with dialogue more deadly than those bullets, but manages to deliver a ridiculous speech about the close relationship between “Eros and Thanatos” with a wry aplomb that critiques the script with a few drawled syllables and a sharp glance. Fishburne even manages to make crass violence witty, doing a crossword puzzle one moment and puncturing a foe’s throat with what looked like his pencil the next.

Little Eros, no Thanatos, but plenty of bathos, Coach Carter is a two-hours-plus lesson in the virtues of calling people “Sir”—a dicey matter for black characters to begin with, even if it does gibe with the real-life story of basketball coach Ken Carter. This is the sort of movie that, on one level, is designed to comfort a white audience with the message that discipline and book-learning not only can but should triumph over the cults of the hoop and hip-hop. But Jackson’s wonderfully nuanced, witty performance, and a few unexpected plot turns, give Coach Carter a subtext that helps complicate such knee-jerk oversimplifications, redeeming the role with energetic humor and a loose-limbed grace.

The movie is way too long: We know in the first fifteen minutes that this commanding fellow in an immaculate gray suit is going to break down the hostility of his basketball team, so the only excuse director Thomas Carter has is that having done so much TV work (from Hill Street Blues to Hack), he enjoyed being freed from the exigencies of emotional “beats” and commercial breaks. But despite this failing, I liked the fact that the predictable player-with-a-pregnant-girlfriend subplot takes an unpredictable turn, and that the soundtrack finds room amidst the crunk juice for Van Hunt to do his best Bill Withers impersonation. That’s the kind of smooth R&B a man of Coach Carter’s generation would really get low to. Come to think of it, if that music had also been playing in Precinct 13, Fishburne and de Matteo might have done something about their pointlessly unconsummated attraction.

BACKSTORY In the original 1976 version of Assault on Precinct 13, police officers joined forces with the inmates in their care to protect themselves against a vicious gang called Street Thunder. Film buffs have long held that director John Carpenter (most famous for the slasher flick Halloween) was reworking the plot of Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo, a 1959 Western in which a small-town lawman is forced to defend himself (and his jail) against hired guns. Aside from the plot, a bit of proof is folded into the credits: Rio Bravo starred John Wayne as Sheriff John T. Chance—the same name that Carpenter picked in Assault for his pseudonymous editing credit.

Assault on Precinct 13
Directed by Jean-François Richet.
Rogue Pictures. R.

Coach Carter
Directed by Thomas Carter.
Paramount Pictures. PG-13.

Pro Formula