by Mel Valentin
"Assault on Precinct 13," John Carpenter's second film ("Dark Star," a student project expanded into feature length, was his first) transfers the American Western (specifically Howard Hawks' "Rio Bravo") into a gritty urban police vs. gangs action/thriller. The setting is perfect for an obviously limited budget: a single location, a semi-abandoned police station, attacked by a mixed-race gang bent on revenge for a police ambush. The gang isn't important here. The characters inside the police station, men and women, police officers, convicts, and secretaries, and how they react to the life-or-death situation confronting them, are. It's here that codes of honor and professionalism come into play.The police ambush that opens Assault on Precinct 13, however, doesn't seem to be the sole catalyst for the attack on the police station: a middle-aged man, having survived a confrontation with several gang members retreats to the police station. The station, scheduled for closure the next morning, is undermanned and lightly armed, with only two officers (and two female employees) on staff. Add a prison transport moving several prisoners to Death Row making an unscheduled stop at the police station, and the levels of antagonism, internal and external, are in place for an escalating series of pitched gun battles that whittles down the survivors, both police and prisoner, now fighting for a common goal, to a handful for the last confrontation.
"Flawed, but deserving of its status as a 'cult' classic."
Foreshadowing his subsequent films, Carpenter makes no effort to establish the identities or personalities of the antagonists, the heavily armed, multi-ethnic gang, "Street Thunder" (a name likely to cause a raised eyebrow or snicker in viewers). Although Carpenter includes an early scene featuring the gang leaders in a meeting (including one leader who closely resembles Latin revolutionary-turned-martyr Che Guevara), he returns to them only in long shots (with no close-ups or extended dialogue). Assault on Precinct 13 settles on a point-of-view that identifies with the besieged police officers and their prisoners. The gang is presented as a collective, nearly faceless, feral force that appears and disappears at will (the gang chooses not to press the advantage several times, for no discernible reason except to provide those inside the police station a breather). The gang members could be, for all intents and purposes, cultists, zombies or any other implacable, unstoppable, natural or supernatural force (in a Western, Native Americans would be the equivalent). In fact, the premise combined with the behavior of the gang adds up to one conclusion: Carpenter was equally influenced by Howard Hawks' highly watchable Western, Rio Bravo, and George A. Romero's seminal horror film, Night of the Living Dead.
Carpenter, however, otherwise follows urban action/thriller conventions, from the setting, to character and character development, to conflict and reversals, with one exception: the early "shock" dispatch of a minor character, which generates a new set of narrative expectations: from that point on, every character, minor or major, is vulnerable to random (and planned) acts of violence. Carpenter, however, retreats from these new, potentially subversive, expectations, instead eliminating minor characters based, in reverse order, on their limited screen time, until only the major characters remain to fend off the "Street Thunder" gang.
Carpenter's first post-university effort falters in two other ways. First, the set pieces, with Carpenter relying one too many times on gang members breaking through windows, which becomes quickly repetitive (and even if the gang has no value for human life, including their own, a more logical plan of attack wouldn't allow their own numbers to be decimated so rapidly, giving their opponents an unnecessary advantage). Second, Carpenter's attempt at laconic, non-naturalistic (read: Western-style) dialogue fails to be convincing, and it's exacerbated by flat line deliveries by two of the leads, Darwin Joston (Napoleon Wilson) and Laurie Zimmer (Leigh) stretching the suspension of disbelief past the breaking point (to be fair, Carpenter and the actors had minimal prep time, which probably contributed to the awkward performances). The more naturalistic dialogue (and scenes) is left to the protagonist, Lieutenant Bishop (ably played by Austin Stoker).
Where Carpenter succeeds (and succeeds admirably), however, is with the initial, tension-filled setup that establishes character and conflict, the tight pacing and the effective use of music cues (Carpenter, setting another precedent, wrote the score himself). Assault on Precinct 13 contains no flashy visuals, edits, or camera movements, but once the police station is under siege (at roughly the half-hour mark), the narrative kicks into high gear, with only the occasional superfluous extended scene between two characters that's meant to signal shared romantic interest.Minor disappointments aside, "Assault on Precinct 13" is an above-average 70s urban actioner, strongly hinting at the promise Carpenter would begin to fulfill in just his next feature film, "Halloween," and continue through "The Fog," "Escape From New York," "The Thing," and "Big Trouble in Little China."
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originally posted: 05/25/05 14:19:17