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November 18, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #46 - Assault on Precinct 13

Before Halloween, The Thing, They Live, and anything else we love him for (unless you're a big fan of Dark Star, like I am) John Carpenter made an action film that is perhaps his grittiest, most violent piece of work.  That film is Assault on Precinct 13, a gangland version of Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo.  (In a fantastic move, Carpenter would later provide a commentary track on a Special Edition DVD of that film - further proof that it's a great time to be a cinema nerd.)
Assault has long been one of the least talked about films from Carpenter, and I understand where one could argue that it's an awfully simple film.  But I've always had an extreme respect for what Carpenter did here, because this is more than just a violent siege film.  It's a film in which the characters buck trends Hollywood has set for them, a film that - like Halloween later - focuses on making us scared of what we can't see.  Though this is certainly an action film at heart, it could easily become Night of the Living Dead or The Birds with a minor script change.  This is a survival horror script that's been stripped down, yet retains all the tension.
Opening scenes establish our plot quickly.  We learn that there are angry gang members - the result of a police massacre in search of stolen automatic weapons - and that the police are pretty sure that anyone who could get organized with those guns would be an unstoppable force.  It's set up that Precinct 13 is shutting down and has only a skeleton crew - led by a rookie African-American officer played by Austin Stoker - manning it.  It's set up that dangerous, yet wise, death row inmate Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) is on a bus in the area with a dangerously sick convict and an angry cop played by Charles Cyphers (Sheriff Brackett from Halloween!).  The gang threat that we were told of is shown to us, as a multicultural gang rolls through town setting their sights (literally) on whoever they drive past.  When they decide to take down an ice cream man and a little girl (Kim Richards) gets in the way, blood and ice cream are spilled.  Her shocked father - much like NOTLD's Judith O'Dea - takes a few shots and runs to the Precinct for help.  The game is set.
Game is a fine term for the action, because the shootouts play like the first person shooters that would rule the video game world twenty-thirty years later.  The gang members are a mostly unseen force, and long shots show us windows and walls being filled with bullets that seem to have a mind of their own.  Silencers are fair play, leaving us only hollow pings of metal to describe the action around us.  Carpenter fills the screen with action without becoming bombastic - though his film features all the gunfire of action films that would come later, there seems to be a simple poetry to his characters' fight to survive.
And those characters are something to behold.  Stoker's Ethan Bishop is an old-school and noble hero; though he's not above getting dirty when he needs to survive.  Joston's Wilson, on the other hand, is the perfect anti-hero.  Repetitive viewings over years of watching the film have made him one of my favorite film characters ever, and I'm not ashamed to say that I've copied some of his sly off-the-cuff remarks in my daily life.  Whether he's reminding us that we "Can't argue with a confident man", or whether he's shrugging off compliments with a simple "I have moments"; Wilson becomes a symbol of the value of humanity - despite the fact that he's been condemned as inhuman.
Don't worry ladies, because we've got something for you too.  Laurie Zimmer shines as the rough-around-the edges police secretary who holds her own at every turn.  An early scene in which she's grazed by a gangsters bullet and doesn't flinch before firing return shots builds her credibility, and she stands toe-to-toe with the men for the remainder of the film.  Carpenter seemed to focus less on building strong female characters as his career went on, but it's hard to top characters like Zimmer's Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis' Laurie Strode in Halloween; because they're two of the toughest and most empowered female survivors ever put on film.
I could go on for days about Assault on Precinct 13.  Even though I've seen the film dozens of times, it still gets my blood pumping every time out.  From its pulsating synthetic score to its tough-as-nails characters and its technically impressive standoffs, this stands as one of my favorite action films - if not one of my favorite films of any genre.  Carpenter gets a lot of publicity for his films after Halloween, but this one is not to be forgotten.  If you haven't given it a chance because it's not one of his horrors, I implore you to do so soonest.  Assault on Precinct 13's mixture of tension and action can stand alongside that of any horror film ever made, and I can't imagine the soul who can't get some enjoyment out of a thriller that's wound this tightly.

(I do have two questions that still remain unanswered about this movie. What does Cyphers' character mean when he tells Bishop that he "run(s) this place like chicken night in Turkey"?  And how exactly does one win at a game of Potatoes?)


MPK said...

Excellent movie! I liked how western-y it is, and I hate westerns! John Carpenter had the touch even from the very beginning.

The Mike said...

Totally. I grew up being force-fed John Wayne, so when I learned that this was a redux of one of his films I was really happy. This is how I wanted those movies to be back then.

Michele (TheGirlWhoLovesHorror) said...

I saw this for the first time some days ago, actually, and I completely dug it. It is simple, yes, but it has an amazing group of characters who are funny and likable (even the "bad guys") and some pretty darn good action sequences - although the first gunfire attack on the building was a little weird sounding because they were using silencers!

Every five minutes I was thinking, 'Play the music again! Play the music again!'

The Mike said...

Yes! The music is sooo good. I have a CD of music from Carpenter's first wave of films (through the '80s), and it claims to have two different versions of the theme. I can not find a difference, but it still rocks!

And I forgot to mention the white ganglord in my review, who I love. He went on to be The Duke of New York's creepy assistant in Escape from New York!