L.A.’S DEADLIEST STREET GANG JUST DECLARED WAR ON THE COPS
John Carpenter. Genuinely one of the most influential genre filmmakers to come out of the 1970s, the originator of the framework of some of the most lasting genres going. And yet, he’s still often overlooked or dismissed as a low-rent director, someone who only churns out cheap exploitation films. He said it best himself when he said, “In France, I’m an auteur; in Germany, a filmmaker; in Britain; a genre film director; and, in the USA, a bum.” Certainly he was a man who was nothing if not aware of where he stood in the pantheon of rising cinema talent. Nevertheless, in his early days, he was a talent to watch and managed to produce very popular films, which remain popular to this day. After his 1974 feature debut, he was approached by investors and given carte blanche to make whatever he wanted as his follow up. He had an idea…
The street gangs of Los Angeles unite to declare war on the police after a raid kills several gang members. Meanwhile, an apparently random killing of an ice-cream vendor and a little girl prompts the girl’s father to kill the man responsible. He is then chased to Precinct 9, a police station that is being relocated and all but abandoned. Only a handful of people are still there, with Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) overseeing the move. Minutes before the arrival of the father, a bus transporting three prisoners, one of whom is death row inmate Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), had stopped to find medical assistance for one of the prisoners. Suddenly, the precinct is under siege from a series of violent attacks.
Just a note before we begin. You will notice that in the above synopsis, I refer to the station as Precinct 9, not 13 as the title would suggest. The title discrepancy was an oversight by the distributors who didn’t like Carpenter’s title choices (The Anderson Alamo and The Siege) and changed it to something they felt had a more ominous tone. Anyway, on with things.
Carpenter has long put himself forward as a big fan of Howard Hawks, the early Hollywood director and one of the first to be regarded as an auteur by French critics. Indeed, he is clearly influenced a lot by the old style of movie making in general. His character names often reflect characters from older films, or the people that played them; he will allude to the work of Hitchcock and, of course, Hawks; he even maintains that all his films should be shot in 35mm Panavision (aspect ratio of 2.35:1 to be exact), which is an old fashioned look, but one that feels big and offers a lot of space within the frame. However, it’s Hawks that is his main influence. So much so, that when he was offered the chance to make whatever he wanted as his next film, he decided to make a western like much of Hawks’ work. Unfortunately, he knew he couldn’t do it on the low budget he would have to work with, so he made some changes. He would set his film in the present day, essentially making a modern day remake of the Hawks-directed John Wayne classic Rio Bravo, about a sheriff and two deputies holding off a mob trying to get to the man in their jail. Carpenter made the changes to make things more contemporary, so his sheriff became a lieutenant, his mob became street gangs, and his deputies became a secretary and a criminal. Carpenter’s mode of working is clearly not dissimilar to the rather simple practicality of James Cameron, who made comparable decisions in his making of The Terminator some eight years later.
Westerns were not the only influence in the making of Assault on Precinct 13. Another one comes from an even more influential horror film from 1968 – Night of the Living Dead. The parallel of the ‘siege’ story is obvious, but Carpenter makes more direct lifts than just in general concept. As with many of Carpenter’s films, the bad guys here are borderline zombies. They move in silence, kill without emotion, never speaking, never stopping. They have such a relentless, menacing quality about them that it’s a little unnerving. When the young girl’s father shoots his daughter’s killer in the chest, it takes him a moment or two to realise he’s actually been hit and then hits the ground. The father, after arriving at the precinct looking for help, becomes this film’s Barbra, spending the rest of the film in a catatonic stupor, unable to get over the trauma of what’s happened. That his daughter is killed at all could be something of a nod to Romero’s classic, wherein one of the most notorious plot points revolved around the gruesome death of a little girl.
These various influences and budgetary requirements actually give the film a strange patchwork quality, though not always in a good way. The actual events seem to be built from a series of coincidences and accidents that happen to converge on a single location, rather than on anything concrete. There are two plotlines that could bring the gangs to the doors of Precinct 9: one is the vendetta they have against the police; the other is their desire to kill the man who killed one of them. Really, either one of these would be perfectly acceptable on their own, which could lead you to question why they would both be included. Frankly, this is a little disconcerting on some level. If we were to assume that the first story we see - the gangs coming together for revenge after a police raid brings their numbers down - is the primary one, and is enough kick off the whole siege, why involve a story about a child being killed? There’s still a degree of shock to seeing it (yes, you do see it) since a child being killed onscreen is still not something you see very often. Of course, the story does need something that would direct the gang’s attention towards this specific police station and not a more populated one. However, if that’s the case, do we really need the stuff about a police raid taking out gang members and their subsequent quest for payback? Couldn’t it just have stayed as them trying to get at someone who witnessed them killing someone? They both have effective emotive qualities (fear, intimidation, horror, shock), but are they both necessary?
The characters themselves are somewhat thin, with little real attention given to why we would care about them in the first place. The only person we can genuinely feel for is the catatonic father, but that’s only because we’ve seen him with his daughter, and saw his reaction to her death. Everyone else is rather under-developed. Even the man in charge, Bishop, seems a little too panicky for the leader of those inside. He and Wilson trade lines in a manner that’s akin to actual, if strained conversation, but it’s all a little flat. Honestly, it would have been more successful if they had no dialogue whatsoever. That said, there’s one character that I really quite like – Leigh. Apparently, Laurie Zimmer really hated her performance in this film, although Carpenter thought otherwise. Although I can see why Zimmer would feel bad about it (she is occasionally so sedate that she almost seems stoned), but I’m inclined to agree with Carpenter. He loves his badass anti-heroes, which is where Napoleon Wilson is meant to come in. However, he’s a little smug and distant for it to work. Leigh, however, really is the calm centre of the storm. She comes across as much more capable and resilient, mostly because she seems so unperturbed by what’s going on. At one point, she gets shot in the arm, and takes it with barely a flinch. She then spends the remainder of the film doing everything with one hand (possibly an allusion to Clint Eastwood in For a Few Dollars More), including striking a match for Wilson, and never complains once. It’s her that exudes the real toughness that made Rio Bravo’s John T. Chance so damn awesome, since he was a character created as a reaction against High Noon’s Will Kane, who spent that film whining about how no one would help him. Chance didn’t want or ask for help, and neither does Leigh.
The overall feeling of Assault on Precinct 13 is that there is definitely something in there. In much the same way that Carpenter’s Halloween became the blueprint for slasher films from then on, Assault on Precinct 13 became something of a blueprint for many police actioners. The thing that holds the film back from being what you know it clearly wants to be is that it seems to have been developed little beyond that initial blueprint. With more rounded characters and motivations, the action and tension could sustain itself better. As it is, this film has to occasionally leave the building in order to find something to do, padding things out a little until the action can kick back in again. There was eventually a remake in 2005, with a considerably bigger budget and more high profile cast. Though it did well, I personally didn’t care for it, mainly because they went too far the other way and overdeveloped. Certainly, it shows that they were wise enough to recognise the faults of the original and tried to address them, but they attached so many levels and twists to it that it inadvertently wandered into every cop movie cliché going, making it quite unsatisfying. The action scenes were great, and the acting was generally of a better standard, but it was just too clunky for me.
Before I finish up, I would be remiss if I did not mention the soundtrack. Carpenter does many of his own soundtracks, and this is no exception. It’s typical Carpenter, which is to say dark, synthy and awesome. The recurring baseline is a thing of greatness and the electronic hum adds to the mood very well. In fact, if any of you have played the video game Manhunt, you’ll find that the soundtrack to Assault on Precinct 13 was likely a very heavy inspiration, as well as the grim cinematography. Seriously, those of you who have played it, go and watch the initial attack on the station and tell me it’s not like playing the game again.
Assault on Precinct 13 is a decent action thriller, which did go on to become the basic blueprint for all such action flicks. It’s a highly influential film, and deserves respect for that, but it rarely rises above being the basic blueprint, serving only as the bare bones of what could have been a much more tense and thrilling actioner. That said, Carpenter knows his way around the story and makes what use he can of the limited budget, and Laurie Zimmer’s almost non-existent performance weirdly serves to make her a fine addition to Carpenter’s list of badass heroes. One to watch and appreciate for its influence.