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John Carpenter is perhaps the least ambitious of the 'weaned on television' wave of 1970s film students who became film directors, but in many ways he's the most natural. His tastes and subjects may not be the highest, but in his first few films he proved himself expert at creating no-budget entertainments that could galvanize audiences better than the most expensive shows Hollywood could muster. With Ed Wood money (well, not much more than Ed Wood money) Carpenter out-did the studios with a tiny horror film in the late 70s, upsetting the balance of power at the boxoffice and causing a new wave of upscale exploitation production.
Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter's first 'real' movie, is a cleverly concocted pastiche of older films and attitudes that the director obviously believed in. Critics of the film school generation made fun of directors who only knew old movies, but Carpenter at least understood the appeal of his favorites. A violent retelling of Rio Bravo, but with street gangs, this is A+ exploitation material.
It's the wrong night for everyone, for within minutes, a man in shock stumbles through the door, and Anderson is beseiged by a horde of rifle-toting gang members. Cut off from all communication, with the rest of the L.A.P.D. thinking the station is shut down, Bishop must risk arming his dangerous prisoners if anyone's going to survive the night.
Assault on Precinct 13 is such a faithful imitation of a Howard Hawks film, it's surprising that 70s audiences would accept it. The picture either avoids dialogue, or limits it to a bare minimum of laconic retorts, opting instead to get on with the story. Carpenter's dialogue is often poor, but the many moments that do work generate an atmosphere that audiences like - the classic Hawksian professional fraternity.
Carpenter is aces when it comes to building tension and interest with a bare minimum of resources. A leisurely half an hour is spent setting up the story, with only the promise of a barely-established gang threat to keep us attentive. The spell he generates is impressive. The wilderness feeling of streets that are dangerous even in broad daylight presumes a paranoia for violence (already going strong in 1976) and a feeling that the authorities are barely in control. Pretty good for a film that only has a couple of cars and half-empty streets to work with.
Inside the precinct house, the atmosphere is Hawks-macho all the way. Laurie Zimmer's Leigh supports the Hawks macho ethic almost singlehandedly, walking slow and smiling with bedroom eyes like Bacall, taking a shoulder wound calmly like Joanne Dru. Carpenter has wisely kept things simple - much of the film is played out in single shots, carefully storyboarded and composed. The camera tends to move only in masters, and then it prowls.
Darwin Joston is barely adequate in the acting department, but his straight, deadpan delivery also works most of the time. There's a surfeit of cigarette talk, as in Hawks' films. Assault on Precinct 13 validates the old Hawks formula, by making us care about the relationship between Wilson and Leigh. Carpenter only shows weakness when he quotes names from Ford and Peckinpah, and when he has Wilson lift an entire dialogue passage from Once Upon a Time in the West: "Not until the point of dyin'."
The movie is amusing when it soldiers on despite the lack of production values. The shootouts are all created through cutaways to single shots. The extended blasting of the squad room, papers and bullets flying in what in 1976 seemed to be endless overkill, is almost all second-unit work.
Carpenter keeps the menace boiling, with a minimum of real gore. A shocking murder of a child early on is never matched, but from then on we're ready for almost anything.
As a seige fantasy, Carpenter's concept is still basic exploitation. Eventually, the story does boil down to a lot of classy Magnificent 7 -type posing and shooting, rugged hereos against a faceless fantasy foe. The 'Cholo' gang behaves more like a multi-racial band of zombies than a street gang. It's almost a disservice to real street gangs, the way they're reinvented in the form of Hawksian Indians, complete with 'noble savage' rituals. A vague menace that circles the precinct, hides and then attacks in easily-decimated full-frontal charges, the gang behaves in a way that creates lots of clean-cut action but makes little sense. Naturally, there are no messy or inconvenient casualties to look after, just corpses. After the fifth person charges into a hallway or through a window, offering himself as an easy target, the onslaught has to rely on convention to work. The action is really very simple - what makes the whole shebang go is style. Carpenter's last-stand hallway defense gag - a combo idea from Jaws & The Thing - easily neutralizes the mob menace.
The fantasy gang, with their perpetual silence and fetishistic weapons, was more a budget necessity than any kind of statement on Carpenter's part. A prologue scene showing a police massacre of (armed, out for trouble) gang members gives the inflammatory impression that the relationship between the L.A.P.D. and the gangs is open warfare - a view that would probably be embraced by both cops and punks, but here is mainly a thing of plot convenience. Assault on Precinct 13 eventually bends under the strain, but not before the tyro John has established his pro credentials, first time out the gate. Mission accomplished.
Image Entertainment's New Special Edition of Assault on Precinct 13 is, finally, a good enhanced DVD of Carpenter's very good-looking picture. The colors are bright, the dark scenes don't go grainy or clog with digital schmutz, and the soundtrack is very dynamic for a lowbudg picture of its year. The director provides a commentary (perhaps from an earlier laser?) that's an honest appraisal of his first film effort. He doesn't oversell his accomplishment, gives praise where it's needed, and reflects that the most important lesson about filmmaking is that it's exhausting! He also recognizes the un-menacing aspect of South Central, backhandedly acknowledging that his hysterics about the area contributed to the idea that the mostly benign part of LA is some kind of Hell Zone.
The graphic extras include the script basis for the film, entitled The Anderson Alamo, giving us a direct look at Carpenter's successful scriptwriting skills.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Assault on Precinct 13 rates: