Friday, July 15, 2016

Classic Movie Review: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Assault on Precinct 13
Directed by: John Carpenter.
Written by: John Carpenter.
Starring: Austin Stoker (Ethan Bishop), Darwin Joston (Napoleon Wilson), Laurie Zimmer (Leigh), Martin West (Lawson), Tony Burton (Wells), Charles Cyphers (Starker), Nancy Kyes (Julie), Henry Brandon (Chaney), Kim Richards (Kathy).
In 1976, John Carpenter was still two years away from making one of the biggest indie films of all time with Halloween, a film that would really kick off the slasher film era in earnest, and come to define his career – for good and bad. He had directed the low budget sci fi film, Dark Star (1974) before – and what he really wanted to do is make a Western – a remake of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) in fact – about a group of men (and women) holed up in a Sheriff’s office fending off a group trying to get in and kill them (Hawks had, in some ways, remade this film already – twice with El Dorado and Rio Lobo). But Carpenter knew he could never get the money to make a period piece – so instead he opted for a modern update of the Rio Bravo formula – setting his film in contemporary L.A. – at an all but abandoned Police Station in an era of town that is all but deserted – and even those who are around, are likely not to be too fond of the police, or too shocked by the sound of gunshots. If the Western genre is about how the West was won – how people took over a lawless land and imposed order on it, than Assault on Precinct 13 is almost the opposite – how they are giving the area back to lawlessness.
The film opens with a sequence that shows cops gunning down any number of L.A. gang members – perhaps justifiably, perhaps not, but the cops don’t seem to have much on their mind other than killing the gang members who, to be fair, are just as violent in return. From there, the main story is setup. There is a desolate L.A. police station on its last night – almost everyone else has moved to a newer one a few miles away. Ethan Wilson (Austin Stoker) is the officer tasked with being on duty at that station that night, and it’s supposed to be a quiet one. Other than a spunky secretary named Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), there isn’t many other people around. Meanwhile, a group of prisoners is set to be transported to prison hours away on a bus – including the infamous Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) – on his way to death row. Another prisoner gets sick, and the bus pulls into the all but abandoned police station – as it’s the closest one around.  Meanwhile, an asshole father is riding around with his little girl, who will not stop pestering him. The see an ice cream man – and stop to get her  some. We already know that the violent street gang is around – watching that same ice cream man – and the little girl makes a tragic decision to come back and complain about her cone – and ends up shot. The father decides to take revenge – which he does – and ends up running away from the gang, and ending up at that police station – the gang descends on the people holed up in the station, who have no way of contacting the outside world.
Hawks’ influence on Carpenter is clear pretty much from the beginning of the film. His characters are ones that are defined by their actions, not their words, and the people inside that building come to depend and trust each other – even if they are on opposite sides of the law. Laurie Zimmer’s Leigh is a classic Hawks-ian woman – tough and sexy in equal doses. There are recurring jokes to lighten the mood at times. The last hour of the film is basically the siege – where the nameless, faceless gang descend on the survivors, and try to wipe them out.  Its non-stop violence and bloodshed, handled with great skill by Carpenter, who shows he was already adept at staging action and violence.
There could have been some sort of political relevance to the film – but Carpenter seems to almost go out of his way to avoid it – particularly in terms of race. He makes the hero, Ethan Bishop a black cop, the violence killer, Napoleon, a white man and the gang that descends on them is multi-ethnic. Like Scorsese’ s Taxi Driver, released the same year, where the ending was originally written to be Travis Bickle killing all black men (it was changed to avoid more controversy), Carpenter seemingly doesn’t want to engage in the issue of race  - but in doing so, he deals with it anyway.
The killing of the little girl will always be the most iconic image of the film (it has certainly stayed with me) – and lets the audience know, fairly early in the proceedings that in this movie, there are no rules, and that Carpenter will do pretty much anything. It’s only after the movie that you realize that he never really does anything that shocking again.
Assault on Precinct 13 is ultimately a rather simple movie – bad guys want in, good guys don’t want to let them in, chaos ensues. Carpenter would, later in his career, strive for films with more subtext than this film contains – sometimes their detriment (I know They Live has a lot of fans – I’m not one of them). Here, I think there is a little bit of subtext – but I almost read it as more accidental than anything else – and ultimately unnecessary. The film is brutally effective from beginning to end, violent, entertaining and downright fun. Carpenter has made more ambitious films in his career – but not many that are better than this. No, it doesn’t quite reach the levels of Halloween or The Thing – but it comes damn close.

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