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Face-Off: The Purge vs. Assault on Precinct 13 2005

07.04.2018by: Cody Hamman
Today sees the release of THE FIRST PURGE, a prequel to the franchise writer/director James DeMonaco started with the home invasion film THE PURGE five years ago. THE PURGE wasn't the first time DeMonaco and star Ethan Hawke worked together on a siege film - they had done the same eight years earlier, when DeMonaco wrote a remake of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 that starred Hawke and was directed by Jean-Francois Richet. To mark the release of THE FIRST PURGE, we're taking a look back at the franchise's starting point, and the DeMonaco/Hawke collaboration that preceded it. They did the same sort of thing twice, but which time did they do it better?
SET-UP
THE PURGE has more set-up than you would need for the average home invasion film, but as we've seen in the years since its release this set-up was actually James DeMonaco wisely and successfully sowing seeds for a franchise. The story takes place in 2022 on the night of the fifth annual Purge, a twelve hour period established by the New Founding Fathers of America during which nothing is illegal. American citizens can do anything they want, including commit murder, without fear of repercussion. The well-off Sandin family plans to wait out the Purge in their secure home, but end up having to fend off a group of purging youths who have tracked their intended prey to the Sandin residence. If this were the only PURGE, it would seem like the Purge set-up was unnecessary or that the set-up was wasted on a simple, claustrophobic movie. But it all worked out.
Writing this one, James DeMonaco had the benefit of working from a foundation John Carpenter had established decades earlier with the original ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976). Carpenter himself based his script on the 1959 Western RIO BRAVO, which was set in the 1800s. This is a simple set-up that can work in any time period. DeMonaco moves it into then-modern day Detroit, adding the element of a New Year's Eve blizzard and throwing in some extra twists and turns. Interestingly, Carpenters' ASSAULT had the criminals attacking the police precinct because they had pursued an intended victim there - an idea DeMonaco would use for THE PURGE. Here the precinct is under siege because they have a notorious criminal kingpin locked up in a cell and the bad guys outside want to get to him. Not to rescue him, but to make sure he won't be giving the names of his associates to the authorities.
HAWKE
Ethan Hawke plays James Sandin, a man who is proud that he has significantly improved his family's financial situation by selling Purge Night security systems, even if they might not be as safe as he led buyers to believe. He's not completely honest and he's too proud of his accomplishments, he's going to have to pay for that, but he's also dedicated to keeping his family safe, whether that means forbidding his teenage daughter from dating an older guy or having to kill people who might cause them harm. While he has issues, he's not a thoroughly bad guy, and it's fun to watch him take on armed attackers.
Ethan Hawke's character, police officer Jake Roenick, knows what it's like to lose people he's responsible for, as his partners were killed during an undercover drug bust gone bad earlier in the year. Since then, he has been working a desk job at the soon-to-close Precinct 13 and self-medicating. When the precinct comes under siege, Roenick steps up with a determination to do whatever it takes to keep the people inside alive. He's a troubled person, but a noble one, the sort of hero we can root for as he struggles to beat the odds and survive this night while saving those around him.
PRIMARY VILLAIN
The mouthpiece for the group of wealthy, educated purgers who infiltrate the Sandin home is a fellow credited as Polite Leader, and there couldn't have been a more perfect casting choice for that role than Rhys Wakefield. Chatting and smiling, the leader could come off as charming in a different film where he weren't out to commit cold-blooded murder. As "Haves", he and his followers look down upon those of a lower class and see them as nothing but swine to be slaughtered for their entertainment. Polite Leader is a scumbag, and Wakefield makes sure you'll want to see the smirk wiped off his face by a violent act.
The attack on Precinct 13 is led by Gabriel Byrne as Captain Marcus Duvall, a corrupt cop who is relentlessly determined to wipe out everyone in the precinct while taking a weary "it's gotta be done" approach to the scenario. For him, it's simple math: if the handful of people in the building are killed, he's saving the dozens of corrupt cops who work under him, whose lives would be destroyed if their names were revealed in court. The scene where Duvall does that math is really the most Byrne is given to work with in the film, so even though Duvall was given some depth, he doesn't make much of an impression.
SUPPORT
James is married to Mary (Lena Headey), a likeable suburban housewife who finds a badass strength within her as the hours of Purge Night go by. Less likeable is teenage Sandin Zoey (Adelaide Kane), who has been dating an older boy against her father's wishes and doesn't seem too concerned about James after her boyfriend gets in a shootout with him. She drags the film down at times. Zoey's younger brother Charlie (Max Burkholder) is a bit of an oddball, but at least he has a working moral compass. He's the one who lets the "bloody stranger" (Edwin Hodge) into the Sandin home in the first place, saving the man from being murdered. This isn't a great bunch of characters, but I can tolerate spending 85 minutes with them.
Laurence Fishburne's Marion Bishop has done some terrible things while carrying out his very successful criminal dealings, but it becomes an "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" situation as Bishop has to team up with Roenick to take on the corrupt cops trying to kill them. Also in the mix are Roenick's psychiatrist, the precinct's party girl secretary, a few other police officers (who may not all be trustworthy), and Bishop's three fellow prisoners: a thief, a gangbanger, and a counterfeiter. I'm not blown away by any of these characters, but all of them are interesting or entertaining to some degree, the standout of the bunch being John Leguizamo as the amusing junkie Beck, who arms himself with a sword for one glorious moment.
ONSLAUGHT
The actual invasion of the Sandin home doesn't take up that much screen time; for most of the film, Polite Leader and his masked pals are just hanging out in the yard. They don't step foot inside until almost the hour mark, carrying various types of guns and bladed weapons. Some stalk silently, others cackle loudly, most of them are just fodder to get wiped out by James Sandin in a fun action sequence. Those he doesn't get are easily handled by other characters - they're not the great threat they've been built up to be. The Sandins could have just opened the door for them and gotten the film over with much earlier.
The cops attacking the precinct have some major resources at their disposal, being armed with guns that have silencers and lazer scopes. They start out in coats and ski masks, have soon moved up to wearing tactical gear, and by the time the night is over they have a helicopter hovering over the place. They surround the building, picking off anyone who comes outside, sending silent bullets through the windows, and also manage to get inside for some face-to-face confrontations. The attackers aren't a creepy bunch, they're just armed and dangerous figures there to kill or be killed, and they do plenty of both.
ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13
This was a pretty good battle, and in the end ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 came out the victor because Hawke had a better character to play in that film, he had a better bunch of people around him, and their attackers were more capable at what they were doing. The Polite Leader is much more memorable than Captain Marcus Duvall, but that's the only category in which ASSAULT didn't put up much of a fight.

Do you agree that the first DeMonaco/Hawke siege film should take the win over the second one, or would you have given the victory to THE PURGE? Share your thoughts on these films by leaving a comment below. If you have suggestions for future Face-Off articles, you can send them to me at [email protected].

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