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It’s my belief that the next wave of action movie innovation — or at least excitement — is going to come from France. Luc Besson made the initial pass at this back in the 90s with La Femme Nikita and Leon before a couple of regrettable US failures — but now he’s back in France producing movies like Wasabi and the Taxi series and Haute Tension and so on. The guy has his own little action movie empire over there.

You also have people like Florent Emilio Siri, who directed the brilliant Nid de Guepes; he’s got the director’s chair on the next Bruce Willis flick, Hostage. You’ve got Unleashed, a French production starring Jet Li, Bob Hoskins, and Morgan Freeman — which looks like it’s going to be the best Western Jet Li movie to date. (Written, as it happens, by Luc Besson. He pops up all over the place.)

And then you’ve got the just-released Assault on Precinct 13, a remake of the John Carpenter classic. It was directed by Jean-Francois Richet, who has not done much of anything of note, and it is absolutely smoking hot.

Not perfect or anything. I’m still wondering where the forest in the middle of Detroit came from. But these young punk French directors really seem to like what they’re doing, and Richet has a great feel for the uses of violence as punctuation to a tense scene. His sensibilities are different enough from mainstream Hollywood that when the movie turns a corner and something dire happens, it’s a shock rather than being just another cat leaping out of a closet.

Also he’s very crisp. Come to think of it, I don’t recall any cats jumping out of closets in Assult on Precinct 13. When something loud happens, it’s someone shooting at someone rather than a false alarm. It’s direct and snappy and immediate.

Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne aid and abet this effort. Hawke’s got a nice tense depth to him as the tortured cop, and Fishburne plays the deadly gang lord with that cool Fishburne poise that is so very convincing. The tension between them is the core of the movie — well, besides the action — and it helps immensely that Fishburne makes us believe he doesn’t understand Hawke’s motives; it helps immensely that Hawke makes us believe that he’d see saving Fishburne as a means of redemption.

It’s just a loud action movie, and it did kind of get dropped in the middle of January where bad movies go to die, but if you want to see a good action movie then you ought to catch this one. Five years from now, you’ll be able to talk about how you were into French action directors before they were cool.

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