"There’s something kind of pleasing about working inside these genres," says Ethan Hawke, who stars as a shellshocked police sarge in the gleefully generic Assault on Precinct 13. "It’s like jazz musicians, taking a very familiar, very commercial tune – say, ‘Jingle Bells’ – and then you put a spin on it. You know exactly how it’s going to work. You just have to riff around it."

"Jingle Bells" is a good example, since Assault on Precinct 13 – which opened Jan. 19 and is a remake of John Carpenter’s 1976 police station siege pic – is set at the end of the Christmas holiday week, on New Year’s Eve.

Hawke is the top gun in a virtually deserted Detroit precinct house, sharing the graveyard shift with an oversexed secretary (Drea De Matteo) and an over-the-hill beat cop (Brian Dennehy). And then a bus full of bad guys – among them Laurence Fishburne, John Leguizamo and Ja Rule – is diverted to the station, and Maria Bello, who plays Hawke’s character’s shrink, shows up too. And Gabriel Byrne chews up a lot of scenery as a tainted police detective. And then all heck breaks loose.

"I knew of John Carpenter’s movie," says Hawke about the original Assault, which had a cast led by the unforgettable Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston and Laurie Zimmer. (Who, who and who?) "I’d seen it when I was younger, and then I never even really watched it again."

So when director Jean-Francois Richet and producer-writer James DeMonaco came along, Hawke sat and talked, and then he read the script. "I was looking to do something fun, something that didn’t take itself too seriously. I had a real good time working on Training Day, and I was seeing if I could follow up that genre."

In some ways, Hawke’s character, Jake Roenick, can be seen as the what-could-have-happened continuation of his Training Day role – the new kid riding with the rogue L.A. narc played by Denzel Washington. (Washington won an Oscar for his work in the 2001 release, and Hawke was nominated for one.) As Assault on Precinct 13 begins, Hawke is once again undercover, consorting with dealers, worried about the lives of his team.

"In a way, it could have been a sequel," he notes. "If Jake was sitting in a precinct house outside of L.A. instead of Detroit ... it could easily be where this guy had ended up.

"But all that is hindsight. Truth is, it was an entertaining script and I liked the part."

Hawke, 34, has a lot of things going on right now: He’s in rehearsals for the 20th-anniversary revival of David Rabe’s lacerating Hollywood theater piece, "Hurly Burly," which opens in New York Jan. 27 and also stars Bobby Cannavale, Parker Posey and Wallace Shawn.

On Thursday, he landed a Writers Guild best screenplay nomination – in cahoots with director Richard Linklater and Julie Delpy – for Before Sunset, a film he and Delpy starred in that landed on many a critic’s Top 10 of 2004 list. Hawke reports that he’s begun to "daydream" and jot down notes for his next novel (he’s published two). And he recently finished up work on Lord of War, with Nicolas Cage, Jared Leto and Bridget Moynahan. Andrew Niccol, who cast Hawke opposite Uma Thurman in 1997’s Gattaca, wrote and directed the tale of gun-runners in Africa.

"In a simplistic way, it’s a portrait of the devil," says Hawke of the film, slated for a midyear release. "It answers the question: How do X million people die in Rwanda and in the Congo and Sierra Leone and these places? Well, somebody sells them AK-47s.

"Who is it that sells them? It’s these guys that go to the poorest places in the world and sell arms to both sides of a dispute and then leave town.

"And they make millions and millions of dollars off of other people killing each other. It’s kind of a fascinating expose."

Hawke, who plays a U.N. official in Lord of War, is also looking to get a pet project, Billy Dead, off the ground. "It’s based on the novel by Lisa Reardon. It’s a very dark, weird little family drama ... . I’ve been trying to get the movie made for years, but it doesn’t seem to be one that is really capturing the financiers’ attention."

Assault on Precinct 13 is currently in theatres.

© 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.