CULT CLASSIC : Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Assault on Precinct 13 (USA, 1976)
Directed by John Carpenter

Starring Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Martin West

There are very few filmmakers in the history of cinema who have been able to hit the ground running and make two or three near-perfect films in quick succession. Even Stanley Kubrick, who followed masterpiece with masterpiece in his prime, took ten years to hone his craft with smaller, more modest efforts like Fear and Desire. Assault on Precinct 13 finds John Carpenter still trying to work out not just what kind of filmmaker he wanted to be, but how to make a film in the first place. After 36 years it remains a serviceable and efficient but ultimately disappointing second venture.It would be easy to look at Assault on Precinct 13 as a classic case of the difficult second album - a great talent dropping the ball when given more money and a big reputation. But while this comment may be true of some Carpenter films - like Big Trouble in Little China - it does not take the context into account. The reputation of Dark Star, as a cult hit and bona fide sci-fi classic, leads us to believe that its success was premeditated, and that Carpenter was destined for greatness, when in fact neither would have been the case.When interviewed in 2002, Carpenter commented that this was the first time that he had shot for several days straight. With Dark Star, he had gotten used to shooting the odd scene, going off to raise money, coming back and repeating the process, much like David Lynch was doing with Eraserhead around the same time. It's not often that I will argue for a lowering of expectations, but anyone expecting a film with the terror of Hallowe'en or the substance of The Thing is setting themselves up for a greater disappointment than necessary. There is still some substance to Assault on Precinct 13, but it is present in a quantity and manner that we would not associate with Carpenter's more mature and competent efforts.The film is at heart a homage to Rio Bravo, Howard Hawks' western starring John Wayne and Dean Martin, which Hawks himself subsequently remade, first as El Dorado and later as Rio Lobo. There are in-jokes and references to Hawks' film(s) throughout, from the fast-paced dialogue during the siege of the police station right down to the end credits: the editor is named as 'John T. Chance', with the name of John Wayne's character serving as a pseudonym for Carpenter.Although it is at heart a western, Assault on Precinct 13 is also positioned as a Blaxploitation film, due to its black protagonist and theme of gang warfare. It is cashing in on the Blaxploitation genre in the same way that the Bond series had done so with Live and Let Die three years earlier. While Carpenter's film is a lot more gritty and realistic than Bond (not to mention shorter and somewhat darker), it is still riding the crest of someone else's wave. This is again not surprising considering the circumstances under which it was made, but taken in the context of Carpenter's back catalogue, it is hardly his most original work.There are, however, a number of aspects to Assault on Precinct 13 which would become classic Carpenter motifs. The evil force which terrorises the police station (in this case the Street Thunder gang) is portrayed as something relentless and borderline supernatural. Carpenter was a huge fan of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, and characterises the gang like zombies, watching our heroes intently and always moving as one. When shooting the showdowns between police and gang members, Carpenter roped in a lot of film students from USC, who relished in the opportunity to play with fake blood and provided him with many inventive screen deaths.Another motif of Carpenter's is to shoot the action entirely in widescreen (or occasionally anamorphic). Audiences then and now tended to associate widescreen with expensive films, so to shoot Assault in Precinct 13 in this way would have got the film notice for appearing relatively professional. Carpenter's composition of exterior shots, such as the advance of the gang members, indicates that he understands how to shoot in this format, filling every possible part of the frame with something visually exciting.Unfortunately, one of the big problems with Assault on Precinct 13 is another common trait in Carpenter's work. The pacing of the opening act is very slow, as the film takes the best part of 30 minutes to decide in which exact direction it wishes to proceed. With Carpenter's later efforts, like Escape from New York, it was often the case that the film would run headlong in one direction without managing to explain why or build suspense in the process. What we end up with is a film of great potential which never really gets into gear, and whose ideas are skimmed over for the sake of moving forward.While Hawks' film was about good men standing up to outsiders to defend a town in the name of American ideals, Carpenter's film seems to be about democracy and its practical implications. During the siege the police station becomes a microcosm for society, with the criminals being isolated while the free citizens make all the decisions on their behalf as to how to survive. There is the implication that democratic governance, and by extension meritocracy, is not an adequate substitute for animal instinct when lives are at stake. While Ethan Bishop begins as an idealistic police officer, he eventually resorts to guns and fist-fighting to keep the gang out.There is a subversive quality to the film in the depiction of the criminals. The character of Napoleon Wilson (who keeps asking for a smoke, in a further Hawks reference) is depicted as someone of equal or greater intelligence to the people holding him captive. We are constantly asking questions about his motivations and wondering whether we can trust him. When the prisoners are called upon to help defend the police station, they are forced into a quandary: they are being asked to defend an institution which is both keeping them alive and holding them hostage. The exploration of realpolitik and game theory in these scenes is pretty intelligent, which leads you to wonder how Carpenter got it so wrong when he revisited these themes in Ghosts of Mars.Despite the intelligent examination of themes, there is still the feeling of both story and substance never really coming together. The opening section of the film is too long to pull us in quickly enough, which the actual siege is not long enough to discuss and address these ideas in the detail they deserve. You get the feeling that in the hands of someone like Irwin Allen (producer of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno), you would have cut to the chase a lot quicker, getting the characters in the tight spot quickly and keeping them there throughout. Carpenter may claim that the script came together fast, but even at 90 minutes the film could use another edit.Then there is the issue of violence to address. Being an exploitation film, we know to expect a certain amount of fighting, bloodshot or other outbursts, and by and large these outbursts are well-executed and in keeping with the tone. The beginning of the siege, where the police station is peppered with hundreds of bullets, is particularly well-done: in the absence of real ammunition, Carpenter uses pyrotechnic charges to disturb office materials in a unnerving way. The only question mark surrounds the murder of a child; while we don't see the deed in all its graphic detail, the jury is still out over whether it is integral to the plot.The performances in Assault on Precinct 13 are by and large a case of pleasant surprises. Due to budgetary constraints, Carpenter cast actors who were relatively unknown but prepared to work relentlessly. Austin Stoker is very convincing as Lieutenant Bishop, calmly holding up the action like a young Laurence Fishburne. Darwin Joston is very good as Wilson, bringing a laconic sense of humour and a sneering physicality. And while both their roles are underdeveloped, Laurie Zimmer and Nancy Loomis both make the most of what they have.Assault on Precinct 13 remains a serviceable and efficient thriller-cum-western which is disappointing in light of Carpenter's subsequent success. Its ideas never take hold in the way that they should, and apart from its technical execution, there is little in it to suggest that the same man would change the face of horror movies with Hallowe'en just two years later. Carpenter fans will gravitate towards it out of nostalgia, while the rest of us will either wonder what the fuss is about or accept it for what it is: a half-decent but slightly forgettable slice of late-night viewing.

Verdict: Efficient but underwhelming