By Mike Szymanski
"I know it was an audacious proposal, but it was a dream of mine, and it happened," French director Jean-Francois Richet says in rather good English after he has worked in the country for a year.
"I had to understand the American mentality, and James was able to help me do that," the director says.
Then, he knew he wanted Ethan Hawke, who was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar in his work as a cop in "Training Day" (which earned Denzel Washington a best actor award). "It seems like this character is like a continuation of his 'Training Day' character five years later," Richet says.
Hawke says, "I had such a great experience on 'Training Day,' I was looking for another good cop movie. When I read this script I knew this was the one I had to do, it was smart, and it was the best action script I'd ever read. Also, I've been fan of 1970's action movies, moreso than I am of today's."
In the Carpenter version, a cop named Bishop finds himself in a precinct building being attacked by a group of violent gang members. This time, Hawke is the cop running the precinct while Laurence Fishburne plays the gang leader who's being held in the jail and is a target for the attackers. Fishburne proposed that his character of the "bad guy" be named Bishop, the good guy of the original.
"Our film is more of a homage than a remake," Fishburne says. "Audiences expectations are higher, and ours is a bigger movie than the original, which was a small independent movie made by a maverick filmmaker. We now have not only three women, but three women who hold their own. Very cool."
The women caught in the precinct are played by Aisha Hinds (as a tough street-smart inmate), Maria Bello (as a psychiatrist to Hawke's character) and Drea de Matteo (as the sexy police precinct secretary).
Bello says she convinced the director to make her character a bit more on edge, like real-life therapists she's known. "I told him I think she has to go off the deep end. Sometimes the more in control someone seems the more neurotic they are inside. I've had great experiences with therapists, and I'm sure that people do great with them, but I've also had horrific experiences."
She relates a story of how a former therapist saw her at a recent screening and tried to psychoanalyze her problems after only two meetings -- and her body of work ("The Cooler," "Coyote Ugly," "Payback.") She says, "He had these pat judgments about me and I thought, 'God, haven't we evolved as human beings, and aren't we constantly evolving, and who are these people that we rely on these books that were written eons ago?'"
Despite her street smarts after playing Adriana in "The Sopranos," de Matteo says she'd still be scared in a situation like "Assault," where people are gunning for her. So, she was happy to play a big flirt to Fishburne's character. "It's not the normal romantic scene in an action film," de Matteo says. "Our little romantic thing was more dangerous and dark than cute. She's the ultimate bad girl and in that moment she wasn't the bad girl anymore."
"I like that they let me go off on my own conspiracy leftist rant," says Leguizamo, who plays an irritating inmate who ends up befriending Ja Rule's character. "Sure, I guess my character gets a bit political, but the point of the story is that you succeed, not who's a bad guy or who's good."
For Leguizamo, surviving included not choking on the fake foam snow used in one scene which caused him to gag when it caught in his throat. He and Ja Rule hung out at bars together in Canada to establish a bond between their characters.
"Hanging out together helped, we could learn how to relate to each other and what we could do with our characters," says Ja Rule, who's transitioning from hip-hop singer to actor. "I suggested that my character Smiley talk about himself in third person because he's in denial, and like 85 percent of all the jail population he says he's innocent."
Certainly some of the characters get killed, and the director met with some resistance when executing a favorite character, but he says, "When I explained it to the producers and the studio, they understood and told me to go ahead."
In fact, there's already talk about a possible sequel for the surviving members of the cast.