“This is a siege. This is a Goddamn siege!”
Ripped taut and shorn of any needless exposition, John Carpenter's cult urban Western, Assault On Precinct 13, is a cinematic bullet - unstoppable and deadly. Made in 1976, after its young and ambitious creator won an Academy Award for the short “The Resurrection Of Bronco Billy” and after a film-school experiment unleashed the fabulously existential sci-fi black comedy Dark Star upon us, Assault is a comic-book movie before such a term had even been coined. Fiercely independent and ferociously filmed, Assault, at first didn't find an audience, its violence and lean style totally at odds with the big name thrillers of the day, high-class, high-stakes offerings like The French Connection, Magnum Force and Serpico. But, after an extremely fortuitous break over the Pond at the London Film Festival, it became the talk of the town and pretty soon afterwards ensured that John Carpenter's name before a film title spelled something wild, revolutionary and downright entertaining.
The premise of the film is hard, lean and as direct as a bullet between the eyes. Over the years it has been reappraised many times and, typical of most real cult movies, it was home video that garnered its ever-growing fan-base. After the surprising success and popularity of Dark Star, independent investors gave Carpenter the break he needed. But the low budget they provided, as thankful for it as the young movie-maker was, still wasn't enough for him to make the faithful and traditional Western he still hasn't made. However, even if the modern-day equivalent that he came up had automatic rifles instead of Winchesters and cars instead of horses, the abandoned police station that was the focus of most of the action was a veritable frontier fort in every way. People have likened the story to the gang violence that was, and still is, prevalent in America's ghettoised urban warrens, but Carpenter, whose films often seem to have some sort of inner code or observation on the social mores of the times, is much more of a mood-purveyor and character-creator than a moralist commentator. His strong points, story-wise, are tight scripts, a profoundly linear construction, razor-sharp dialogue and set-piece verve. Assault On Precinct 13 is pretty much the perfect embodiment of what made his early cycle of motion pictures so celebrated and damned addictive. Back then, he knew what he was doing - and we loved him for it.
Assault is an extremely well-known film and no proper discussion of it can be spoiler-free. Therefore, expect lots of spoilers in the following review.
South Central LA is about to explode in a white-hot night of fury. A vast and dedicated multi-racial gang called Street Thunder have managed to obtain a shipment of automatic weapons and enough ammunition to keep even Rambo's head down for a while. News broadcasts warn of the imminent danger but even the massacre of a squad of heavily armed gang-members in a police ambush cannot prevent the coming storm. With their fates sealed in a ritual-pact, the various gang warlords swear to take action and, soon enough, innocent blood has been shed and the battle-lines are drawn. In revenge for the shockingly casual murder of his young daughter, a frantic man (Martin West) takes the law into his own hands and incurs the wrath of the gang responsible, who pursue him into the night. Taking refuge in the nearest police station, Precinct 13, he inadvertently brings the full force of Street Thunder down upon it in what will be a long and bloody night of violence. Precinct 13, cut off and isolated, is only a shell. Having officially closed down that day, the station has only a couple of cops and a pair of secretaries in it. It may be his first day on the streets, but Austin Stoker's unlucky newbie Lt. Ethan Bishop will soon have a fight on his hands. When a prison wagon loaded with convicts, including the notorious killer, Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) on their way to Death Row makes an ill-fated rest-stop, the bloodbath begins and the gang, like an army, encircle the Precinct and slowly tighten the noose around it. Whether the siege is down to “sunspots ... pressure on the atmosphere” as Bishop helpfully remarks to an unconcerned Captain as he takes up his lacklustre posting, or just plain bad luck, he will have to unite a scared and fractious group of Howard Hawksian characters if they are to stand a chance of surviving.
“Chaney didn't fall. He was shot. I couldn't tell if he was still alive.”
“But there wasn't any sound ...”
“Silencers. They're using silencers.”
Carpenter made no secret that his inspiration for the film was the classic Western Rio Bravo, directed by his all-time hero Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne and Dean Martin as the mismatched pair of lawmen who must defend their jail-house from a vicious gang out to spring the killer who is caged within it. But not having the budget or the time to mount his own full-scale period-oater, the sophomore filmmaker opted to do a loose remake of Hawks' original and set it in and around real South Central LA locations. To carve out his own unique stamp of ownership on the film, he would also elect to write, edit and score the film too. This was also a concerted effort to keep costs down and a true model for the up-and-coming indie-crowd that would follow in his footsteps. But Carpenter's love of the Western genre would not stop at just the concept of modern-day cowboys and Indians battling over an updated fort. He even drafted in Henry Brandon, the terrifying Comanche chief, Scar, from John Ford's seminal The Searchers, to play the police Sgt. Chaney. He christened Laurie Zimmer's icily cool and surprisingly tough cop-shop clerk Leigh, after the celebrated screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who co-wrote Rio Bravo.
“Why would anybody shoot at a police station?”
Well ... duh ...
The film's balance of character, humour and action is textbook stuff made all the more remarkable by that fact that Carpenter was really just testing the water. But the reason why it worked so well, as with his other hits from this substantial early period, is that he had the sheer audacity and courage to make the films he wanted to make. Taking The Thing as an exception, the kiss of death for Carpenter was studio intervention. As soon as suits and money-men started to call the shots, the maverick lost his edge and the ability to conjure the same magic as before. Although he would argue against it, it seems to me that John Carpenter's confidence and verve have been eroded by the type of pressure that such interference has. Which is why returning to Assault On Precinct 13, a time when having only a meagre budget meant nothing more than a chance to improvise, adapt and overcome for the director, is such a simple, yet bitter-sweet joy. The ingredients were all there and, even if Carpenter and Tommy Wallace (long-time friend, collaborator and Art Director on Assault) were really just making the kind of movie that they, themselves, wanted to see, the template for a vast number of action/thrillers was formulated and laid out here.
“Left out again. Life just seems to pass us by, don't it?”
Stoker is brilliant as the cop caught-in-a-web. He allows Bishop to be both courageous and yet stricken with disbelief at the situation he finds himself in. There is a playful degree to which Bishop will go in order to be liked - little goofy comments and such like to endear himself to the skeleton crew at the station - but it is nicely tempered with some moments of confessional pride and his subsequent relationship with Wilson is judged with hand-in-glove perfection. What works exceedingly well is that it is Bishop who bends to the heightened cynicism of Wilson, more so than the other way around, Carpenter reversing the Western buddy-buddy ethos that would normally entail the criminal attaining a grudging respect for the lawman, as seen in both versions of 3.10 To Yuma, for example. Their final words are incredibly touching and both Stoker and Joston strike up a rapport that is winning, full of chemistry and something that you'd love to see develop even more.
“You're gonna chain me to a seat and drive for hours. Then when we get to Sonora you're gonna chain me in a cell - maybe for as long as ninety years. Seems chains is all I got to look forward to ...”
Darwin Joston, who would also star in Carpenter's The Fog, is excellent here as villain-cum-hero Napoleon Wilson, a Death Row convict whose back-story, despite many probings by the rest of the cast, is never revealed. “I'll tell you sometime,” is his usual laconic dismissal. With his slicked-hair, diminutive, almost bookish appearance and laid-back approach to the way the wheels of justice have turned on him, Wilson becomes a complete contradiction as soon as things get ugly. If even “a little white lie can sometimes trip a man up” then what colossal porkies had the gang-member whose arm he cleanly snaps and whose head he slams high into the cell bars been spinning? Suddenly, the little sarcastic career-crim becomes an extremely lethal weapon with more than a few tricks up his sleeve. Many love the moment when he gets even with the Warden (played by John J. Fox) from whose prison he is being transferred, but, for me, personally, Wilson's most beguiling, iconic moment comes just after he has blown away a trio of baddies with a shotgun and, in some sort of warped epiphany he contemplates the weapon in his arms and a wry, enigmatic half-smile crawls across his face. You gave me a gun ... he seems to be thinking, and all the possibilities that it offers up begin to tease him like Christmas Tree lights.
In many ways, Wilson is the star of the show. Joston is an unlikely looking leading man, however. His slightly pudgy face and curious lack of expression fly in the face of convention, and yet he totally comes to epitomise the quintessential anti-hero. Inspired by Charles Bronson's enigmatic character Harmonica, from Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West and even allowed to utter a rather shameless quote from that classic movie, Wilson should have opened a lot of doors for Joston, yet this was never to be and the actor would, ultimately, drift on to lesser and lesser roles. Carpenter would, of course, go on to create the ultimate in rebel crusaders with Escape From New York's Snake Plissken, but the foundation was certainly laid here in the chained-up, grey prison-garbed, cigarette-craving Napoleon.
“I go through all that ... and his gun isn't even loaded.”
Laurie Zimmer is an unusual actress. Her face is cruel and stern, yet still attractive. Her eyes pierce the screen like laser-beams and her acting presence is a little akin to that of a stage play - which, of course, a lot of this movie, with its one simple main set, actually comes to resemble. She moves in a stilted, robotic way and it is tempting to believe that this is actually a very amateur performance that we are seeing, but Zimmer manages to rise above such criticism with her cutting exchanges and almost surreal aura. The budding romance that develops in a nano-second between she and Wilson may seem trite and clichéd, but it is borne out of a high-pressure situation and, in one of the fastest and most perfect tit-for-tat sequences, both have saved the other's life down in the cell-block. Their muted attachment may be brief, but you definitely get the impression that it has meant a lot to them. As Wilson even equates early on - “Days are like women. Each one is so damn precious that they always end up leaving you.”
“Look at that, two cops wishing me luck. I'm doomed.”
As a reluctant partner-in-crime, Tony (Rocky) Burton's sweaty con Wells is a wonderful little creation. Another criminal forced to fight alongside The Man if he wants to stay alive - “Nobody said anything about the Cholo!” - he would be the comedy stooge in anybody else's hands other than Carpenter's. Allowed to rant and preen and curse his rotten luck, this chip-on-the-shoulder underdog nevertheless gets his shot at redemption with the tense sewer-run sequence and it is here that Snake Plissken's ill-fated plan to turn his glider north and head off to Canada in Escape From New York was probably hatched. The classic “one potato, two potato” scene is hilarious yet still incredibly ramped with tension. His frankly ridiculous realisation that he has been firing empty shells due to the presence of a silencer on his gun only works because Burton's reaction is so witty and cool. Carpenter regulars Charles Cyphers and Nancy Loomis provide some solid support, too. As Starker, the cop shepherding Wilson across the state, he looks and sounds and acts like a prototype for Brian Dennehy's Sheriff Teasle from First Blood. He may be a no-nonsense guy, but with his begrudging respect for Wilson's withering attitude, he becomes an authority figure who is hard to dislike. Loomis, who would go on to appear in Halloween and The Fog, actually has the rather thankless role of annoying secretary Julie - but far from playing it hysterical, as many other actresses would have done, she imbues the terrified girl with a strain of desperate fatalism. After it becomes clear that the gang are after the shell-shocked fugitive in their midst, she wastes no time in suggesting that they offer him up for sacrifice. “Well, don't give me that civilised look!” she retaliates as her less-severe companions regard her with utter disdain. That patented whiny voice of hers is excellent for adding to the stress of the dwindling band of defenders, as well.
“Nobody took me out of Anderson when I was a baby. I walked out, myself, when I was twenty.”
Amid the plentiful explosions of squib-tastic gore, the strength of Carpenter's film lies in its dialogue. Almost every line is like a re-imagination of noir-speak, shot through with a sagebrush-tough Western appeal that is just enough to make it sound even more heightened. When Wilson, who is the father of all the best lines, tells Leigh that “There are two things a man should never run from, even if it costs him his life. One is a man who's helpless and can't run with you,” he even makes his unspoken reply to her enquiry as to what the second thing might be a slice of electric silence that, somehow, speaks volumes even without a dry-as-sandpaper wisecrack. There's a steady burst to Wilson's staccato drawl that, occasionally, even mirrors the main title's brick-hard five-note motif. Again, this adds to the film's climb-and-descend, rise and fall pattern of suspense-perpetuation. Carpenter was acting more on an instinctive level in those days, his directing, writing and editing blending, for the most part, into one seamless mesh that would work subliminally as well as viscerally on the viewer.
“The very least of our problems is that we're out of time.”
“It's an old story with me. I was born out of time.”
How Carpenter managed the difficult and troubling task of blowing away a little girl (even if it is Escape To Witch Mountain's annoying Kim Richards) with a splashy welter of gore is still a mystery even today, after all the deluge of violent imagery that has come our way since. But it has as much to do with the prevailing sense of wanton evil, of an almost supernatural evil that has made the gang something akin to a zombified cult, as it is an observation of how sick society has grown. Carpenter, unlike most of his fellow genre filmmakers who were active around at the same time - Romero, Hooper, Craven, Dante - wasn't about message-making. Good and evil, whether brought to bear by ghostly mariners returning to avenge an ancient wrong, or an indestructible killer preying on teenage babysitters, or a '58 Plymouth Fury corrupting the mind and soul of its young owner, are notions of a fantastical bent as far as he is concerned. Evil is “external”, it is something from “out there”. The gang in Assault are just as “externalised” and fantastical in nature as Michael Myers or the Thing for many reasons. Their very multi-racial complement is something that, alone, lifts this mob of murderers far up and away from reality. But their virtually silent means of communication, their stealth and fearlessness in the face of bullet-spewing defenders and their bloodcurdling ability to mount impressive attacks and then remove all evidence only seconds afterwards is bordering on the hive-brain behaviour of some unstoppable insect army. When Frank (fan-haired Romero in Escape From New York) Doubleday's wraith-like White Warlord takes a bullet he merely contemplates his wound for a beautific second before falling out of shot like a deactivated droid. Other members may sport Che Guevara hairdos and T-shirts, but their ideology is more Joker-inspired anarchy than any form of strategic or political rebellion. The film, therefore, tackles its frightening subject matter in two ways. The first is the obvious updated Western scenario, the good guys holed-up and under siege from those pesky circling redskins. The second taps purely into Carpenter's continual belief that only those good guys have personalities and are, in effect, the only humans of the piece. If you look at nearly all his films, the antagonists - be they The Thing, skeletal-faced aliens from They Live, Halloween's Michael Myers, Halloween III's robot assassins, possessed theological students from Prince Of Darkness, or those pint-sized extraterrestrial children from the Village Of The Damned - they are emotionless, implacable and totally un-negotiable. They may masquerade as people - but they are not “human”. And this hyper-motivated gang is the forerunner of Carpenter's veritable assembly-line of pod-people. They are so committed to their mission, so devoid of empathy and so totally heedless of their own personal sacrifice that they become coldly alien, themselves, and all the more monstrous as a result.
“No-one said anything about the Cholo!”
“Well, what does it mean?”
“It means they don't care. It means they want to rip us apart!”
But Carpenter's breaking with tradition didn't stop with wasting innocent ice-cream-slurping kids - or the ice-cream vendors, themselves, for that matter ... even if they do pass off regular vanilla in place of pistachio. Sidney Poitier may have been assuming charismatic leading man status in the likes of To Sir With Love, They Call Me Mister Tibbs, In The Heat Of The Night and Duel At Diablo already, it was still something of a rarity to have a black actor play the hero and, in the mid-seventies when Clint Eastwood was King, it was possibly even more rabble-rousing, yet this is exactly what Carpenter did when he cast Austin Stoker as the last-stand cop, Bishop. But, as with the almost naïve use of street-gangs as his aggressors, the filmmaker had no hidden agenda with his turning of racial stereotypes on their head. Another important independent movie-maker, George Romero, had crossed this divide as well, when he cast Duane Jones as his nominal hero in Night Of The Living Dead and, similarly, he too did it not out of any overt sermonising. Although, unlike Carpenter, Romero was still fully aware of what was such a controversial move.
“Can't argue with a confident man.”
As much as I love this movie, and the rest of John Carpenter's early run of productions, there are still some niggles in it that he has never quite managed to overcome even up to Big Trouble In Little China. Although he certainly mastered the atmospheric side of things and created some indelible horror set-pieces and characters along the way, he simply isn't great shakes when it comes to action, or rather the sustainment of action. Escape From New York - an absolute favourite of mine - despite being a classic thriller is still, you have to admit, a bit of a damp squib when it comes to the proverbial high-octane stuff. Now, that is another story and one that I will probably broach more fully at a later date (perhaps if a respectable version of Escape ever comes out on Blu-ray!), but the seeds are sown here with Assault. Whilst Carpenter reigns supreme at building his captivatingly minimalist narrative, it seems clear that he burns out before the finale. We get the awesome first wave assault - “The windows!” - but, although the next logical and expected step would have been to provide an even greater and more exciting battle, just as all those Westerns that Carpenter so admires would have done, we are denied another such set-piece until the end when, if we are honest, Carpenter's flair has, perhaps, run out of steam. Maybe it is just me, I don't know, but that climactic face-off always strikes me as being something of a let-down compared to what we have been building up to. Now, before you think that I'm saying this as a seasoned movie-loving veteran of the action-flicks that have pummelled our screens and our senses since Assault first came out, I thought the very same thing when, as a kid watching this on TV and then uncut on the old Media Entertainment Video, I longed for a real and proper pay-off at the end. What Carpenter does is wrap things up much too swiftly, the film, after such a terrifically suspenseful development, is literally over before you know it. Considering the painstaking degree of pacing and the measured ratcheting-up of tension that has gotten us to this point, the final stand-off is actually quite poorly achieved.
“I've got two bullets left. What do I do, save them for us?”
“Save them for the first two a**holes that come through that vent!”
And another irritating element that keeps creeping in is the series of cut-aways to the two patrolmen cruising up and down the street trying to find the source of all the reports of mysterious gunfire in the area. Both of them are lousy actors and their little scenes have a peculiarly “fake” feel about them. To makes matters worse, the voice on their radio informing them of the disturbances is one of the most dreary and monotonous that you can imagine. In a movie of such class, this really is quite unforgivable. But you have to hand it to Carpenter for delivering a terrific nod to that old urban legend about rain dripping on the roof of the car with that awesome final reveal of just what is hanging above it.
Assault may not benefit from the Steadicam perfection of soon-to-be Carpenter regular DOP Dean Cundy, but the moody 2.35:1 photography from Douglas Knapp excellently places us deep into the heart of the conflict. Prowling shots of the baked LA streets, gun-barrels poking out of car windows; a frantic montage of the beleaguered defenders keeping the first serious wave of assaulters at bay; the nightmarish view of the warlords cruising up and down the same road, buzzing poor Peter Bruni's doomed ice-cream man; and the eerily noiseless manoeuvres of the gang moving about outside the station keep the visual pace of the film flowing with a crucially resonant ebb and flow. A couple of curious moments still stand out, though. The shot of Leigh taking the bullet in the arm always looks a little odd to me and the slowness of both Wells' hot-wired vehicle and the roving patrol-car as they each wheel around the parking lot is strangely infuriating. But you have to remember that this was only Carpenter's second feature film and, with an unbelievably rapid twenty-day shoot, and his overall eagerness to get his movie out, teething troubles and slight oversights were only to be expected. Even the film's title is incorrect. It is actually Precinct 9 that is being assaulted, but the film's distributors, CKK, enforced the title change to maximise on the deadlier and more ominous impression that the number 13 would provide.
“There might still be people out there who think this is a police station.”
But the editing from Carpenter, himself, under the alias of John T. Chance (the name of Wayne's sheriff in Rio Bravo) is the stand-out element that makes the set-pieces, certainly the main window-blasting one, legendary. Just look at the moment when Leigh chops a douche-bag across the face and then pile-drives his privates right back up into his stomach with a ferocious kick - you've just gotta love that agonised expulsion of air that he gives! - and the very next instant when Wilson does his bone-breaking party-piece with the next sorry urchin that comes along. In fact, don't just watch it - revel in it. Like the film at large, this is streamlined, pared-to-the-bone simplistic celluloid statement-making. One, two, three ... boom, boom, boom. It looks so staggeringly, brutally crude and yet this is almost cinematic perfection in terms of photography, direction and editing. Another terrific set-piece is the initial attack on the Precinct - the gang firing round after round at the windows and making a hypnotically dazzling, high-velocity mess of the interior in the process. Un-scored, this sequence is like a ballistic ballet, the whine and crack of each slug acting as a weird musical serenade to the fluttering papers and spider-webbing panes of glass.
And then, of course, we come to the music. Composed and performed by Carpenter in what would become his trademark synthesised precision meld of an instantly memorable signature theme coupled with pulsating, twin-textured motifs. Although he would go on to create cult scores for Halloween and its first two sequels, both Escapes, The Fog, Prince Of Darkness and Big Trouble In Little China, Carpenter's most distinctive, most percussive and most immediately primal music is for Assault On Precinct 13. That pounding main theme, with its insistent, never-ending beat is so magnetic and spellbinding that you are instantly hooked. With the hooting of an unstoppable freight-train announcing it, a sound like a pair of insane, acid-tripping cicadas competing with one another propelling it, the title theme thunders at, and then over you with that gut-rumbling bass-line. Carpenter's movies have the unheralded distinction of ensnaring all of the mood and character that you will experience during the action of the feature in just their main title themes. The opening credits to Halloween, Escape From New York, The Fog and, especially, Assault On Precinct 13 actually make you stop and listen to the music. I've been a collector of movie soundtracks since the age of twelve and I have to say, with my hand on my heart, that my obsession for them was probably forged with this score. In fact, I think I've just talked myself into writing a separate review for it. So expect that soon, score-fans.
“It would be a privilege if you'd walk outside with me.”
“I know it would.”
“Ha ... you're pretty fancy, Wilson.”
“I have moments ...”
Cue the music.
Assault On Precinct 13 still rocks thirty-three years later. Powerful, emotive and supremely atmospheric, this one is there with a bullet.
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