Assault On Precinct 13 (1976 USA)

Labelled an “auteur” by the French and a “bum” by his compatriots, John Carpenter will never get the acclaim of a Spielberg or a Hitchcock. I’m siding with the Americans…The best thing about “Assault” is its bare-bones construction. There’s precious little backstory, no real explanation for the heinous actions of the gang members, no extraneous “character development” for the protagonists, no scenes where they talk about how they have a wife and kids at home or are retiring tomorrow, and very few cutaways from the main action once it gets going (the lone exception being a few sequences with a couple of clueless cops patrolling the neighbourhood who keep missing the siege on the supposedly abandoned precinct).

Carpenter begins with the picturesque parallel rows of L.A. disturbed by the police massacring associates of a gang of street mercenaries, whose broad-based leaders, (Che Guevara beret fanboys) are then seen dunking blood into a bowl before setting out for retaliation. Anyway, against the explosive ghetto landscape is Austin Stoker’s durable cop, whose desk-sitting post at the ready-for-graveyard eponymous precinct becomes an examination of bravery when in staggers the gang’s target, an innocent desperado gone comatose after an incident involving his daughter. Off go the lights and phones. Then Stoker and the station’s counting, pokerfaced policewoman, Laurie Zimmer, plus convict Darwin Joston, have to repel the external aggressors. But by this time, these faceless goons have metamorphosed into a systematic, case-hardened energy bleeding through the roller blinds.

Indulging the blaxploitation and horror thriller craze of its moment, it’s a cult film that’s not as lofty or impressive across the board as some would have you think, but it has its droll and hardnosed moments of jolts and schlock. This is an excellent late-night flick:  taut enough to keep you sitting up straight but trite enough to supply hay for teasing. John Carpenter’s neo-Western (inspired by Rio Bravo) is as primly efficient and austerely economical as anything the genre director ever made. Unfortunately, the premise of a police station, the night before its shutdown, suddenly besieged by a mystifying band of suicidal thugs is a tad too simplistic.

Carpenter’s music score is unbearable simple too. But despite these quibbles, Carpenter’s accomplishment is both an unsentimental and bracing action film. It also incorporates a finely hinted parable of 1970s ethnic frictions. From a conversation about coffee between the freshly reassigned black cop, Bishop, and the dauntless white officer Julie, to Bishop’s anxious alliance with scornful white jailbird Napoleon Wilson, Carpenter imagines a station under fire from both immensely equipped goons and changing national attitudes. Edgy!

Not that social issues slow down the director’s tableau homicidal stage sets, which include their stake of irrationalities. For example, the agitators’ tediously senseless efforts to break into the station through broken windows, making them trouble-free game for Bishop and company’s bullets, yet however show a thrifty roughness typified by the notorious, feverish early scene concerning full-tilt Street Thunder members, a little girl, and an ice cream truck. The sinister, spectral gang’s weaponry are automatic– fitted pistols with silencers.

So there are no firing reports. An intermittent hail of bullets descends upon the building and all that can be heard are the whizzings and ricochets of incoming rounds. Scenes have a supernatural quality. The windows, blinds, and all the internal fittings, begin disintegrating piecemeal as if prey to some fickle poltergeist. Heaps of stationery take flight with a ‘pop’, light-fittings erupt, charts and pictures fall to the ground. It’s a quite horrifically claustrophobic scenario that seems to have a hint of The Birds. Despite being a bum, Carpenter doesn’t waste any of his $100,000 budget. You have to give him credit for that.  🙂

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Comments

  1. Excellent review! I’ll have to check this flick out.

    Liked by 2 people

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