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THE ONLY 'ASSAULT' IS ON AUDIENCE'S SENSIBILITIES

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 **1.2 (out of four)

Starring Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne and Gabriel Byrne. 109 minutes. Rated R.

If you are going to remake a cult film classic, it darn well ought to be better than the original.

Jean-Francois Richet apparently ignored this tidbit of Filmmaking 101 wisdom when he was putting together "Assault on Precinct 13," his ultra-violent update of John Carpenter's 1976 classic.

Perhaps it is just that in the 21st century, updates of classic stand-off Westerns "Rio Bravo" and "El Dorado" -- from which Carpenter derived his masterpiece -- just don't work. It requires a huge leap of faith to believe that anyone could withstand an all-night assault with modern armament.

But if all you are looking for is a two-hour escape watching a cinematic version of a video game like "Grand Theft Auto," this film provides it in spades.

New Year's Eve, indeterminate present. Sgt. Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke) sheds the top layer of his hangover and drags himself to Precinct 13, a Detroit station house that will close after this final night shift.

The precinct's secretary, Iris (Drea DeMatteo), wearing a skirt the width of a fan belt, is on a ladder pinning New Year's decorations to light fixtures.

Jasper O'Shea (Brian Dennehy), one of those map-of-Ireland, old-school flatfoots, enters with a case of liquor. Also showing up at this odd hour is shrink Alex (Maria Bello), who has stopped by on her way to some swanky party to get her last co-pay for the year out Unusable column measure of the troubled Roenick.

Meanwhile, a police bus carrying mob boss Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne) along with three low-level "skells" (as we all all petty criminals "NYPD Blue"'s first episode), is rerouted to the understaffed 13th.

And so the assault on our credibility begins.

Two gunmen burst in through the basement, apparently to break out Bishop. It soon it becomes clear to Roenick that the Humvees outside are manned not by Bishop's minions, but by corrupt cops who want Bishop dead before he blows them in. Now that they have been ID'd, Roenick knows the renegade cops will let no one survive the night.

Mayhem and long bursts of gunfire ensue. Roenick arms everyone with guns from the evidence room in the hopes of holding off until dawn the platoon of elite snipers with assault rifles and night-vision goggles.

Why doesn't rogue cop leader Marcus DuVall (Gabriel Byrne) just send the troops into the ramshackle outpost and be done with it? Probably because then the movie would only be 37 minutes long, and there would be only one high-tech firestorm followed by a slow pan of a forehead trickling blood.

In the process of updating this film from '70s Los Angeles to present-day Detroit, some technological advancements just plain get in the way of the story. But instead of spending time working through the disconnects for the sake of plausibility, screenwriter James DeMonoco simply tosses in a line of facile exposition to wave them away.

It is one thing for attackers to cut old-fashioned phone lines, but how can DeMonoco explain why no one inside the precinct will flip open a cell phone, or, for that matter, fire off an e-mail S.O.S? In DeMonoco's world, it seems, highly skilled communications specialists are willing to work overtime on a holiday to scramble wireless signals.

But some of the implausibilities cannot be explained away, and there are too many glaring displays of filmmaking laziness for a film with this budget. You would, for example, need to have been hit with a bullet in the forehead yourself not to notice that when Iris crawls across a floor covered with shattered glass, she shreds her stockings but not her knees or palms.

Or that the film's climactic shoot-out occurs in a forest that flourishes in the midst of Detroit's industrial wasteland.

Or that a "blizzard" that leaves an accumulation of only 3 inches in 12 hours could incapcitate Detroit.

Still, this is an action movie, and the action is great: unremittingly violent and with a bold lack of concern about which characters make it to the closing credits.

And while most of the actors trot out versions of characters they've played time and again, some performers bring out the big guns, so to speak.

Laurence Fishburne does that so-cool-he's-hot thing he did so well in "The Matrix" and he does it with a crossword puzzle instead of a leather trench coat.

John Leguizamo, blessed with the best lines in the movie, takes his fidgety crack head character and runs with it.

As for Hawke? Well, if you can buy rapper Ja Rule as a counterfeiter, you'll be able to buy this undershampooed bantam playing the cop who won't go down without a fight.

But only because whenever you start to think about it for too long, a blaze of bullets will make you forget about things like character, plot and dialogue.

e-mail: bsullivan@buffnews.com