Crazed, grubby and possessed of the crookedest teeth in Hollywood, Ethan Hawke opens “Assault on Precinct 13” with a scene that makes him look like a crook, even though he’s a cop. And that sets the template for the movie.

It’s a things-are-not-what-they-seem, shades-of-gray movie that keeps us off guard with an ingeniously constructed script and moral waters so murky even the absurdly overconfident Dr. Laura wouldn’t try to clear them.

For starters, Hawke is a drug addict who stops caring about his job after a bust goes awry. His Detroit Police Department is as dirty as a contestant on “Fear Factor.” And Laurence Fishburne plays a crime kingpin who – bear with me – a. has killed a cop, b. but it was in self-defense, c. plus, the cop was dirty, and d. Fishburne is jailed in Hawke’s about-to-be-demolished precinct house when the place is surrounded.

“Assault on Precinct 13” is the sort of efficient, suspenseful melodrama Hollywood cranked out like crazy (it’s a remake of a 1976 John Carpenter film) before TV took over the police genre. The premise takes awhile to set up, but it’s a tight one,

allowing for virtually nonstop action and frequent shifts in the balance of power in the precinct (others there include Brian Dennehy as a veteran cop who’s justifiably suspicious of Fishburne, Drea de Matteo as a tough secretary and John Leguizamo, overacting shamelessly).

There are a few holes here: This precinct is quite near downtown Detroit, so how could no one notice the gunfire and explosions there? And is there really a forest in Detroit?

But “Assault” is a testament to how a talented cast can persuade us to believe in dicey situations (for a look at the reverse, check out “Flight of the Phoenix,” which skimped on the casting budget and got what it paid for).

The other thing that keeps us hooked is the film’s troubling moral universe, which works as a metaphor for our own troubling moral universe, with its shady heroes and villains. “Assault’s” Detroit is the civic equivalent of a grimy toilet with snipers in it, a place where no one is untainted by evil and doubt.

At some points, you may find yourself thinking, “OK, wait. I’m supposed to be on the side of the thugs who are gleefully killing crooked cops because the crooks aren’t quite as bad as the cops?” And then you find yourself thinking, “I guess so. Because if I don’t root for them, then there’s nobody to root for.”


3 stars

Directed by: Jean-Francois Richet

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, Brian Dennehy, Gabriel Byrne, Drea De Matteo, Maria Bello, John Leguizamo

Rated: R, for strong violence and profanity

SHOULD YOU GO? It’s an assault, all right, but a suspenseful, intelligent one.

(c) 2005, St. Paul Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.).

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-01-18-05 0849EST

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