Thursday, 29 August 2013

Assault on Precinct 13 [1976]

I first saw this movie in a cinema double-bill as a teenager during the mid-1980s. It was an art-house flea-pit. The underground tube train thundered by beneath the building every half-hour, given the impression of an earthquake, the seats were battered and uncomfortable. Hit the padding and you could see the dust cloud rise against the screen, but that didn’t matter to me because art-house cinemas show great movies. They always have. I remember being only one of four people in the entire auditorium. I prefer to sit at the highest row as near to the center as I can get. To my left, one row down, was a couple who chatted as the pre-movie on-screen advertisement cards scrolled and soft music played. I couldn’t make out what they were discussing, but every time she paused to take a breath, he would tut loudly and exclaim: “God!” The fourth was a man sitting alone on the same row as the couple, at the far right, tucked next to the wall. I took him to be in his late-50s. All the way through the movies he scribbled furiously and turned pages on a clipboard. I guessed he was a journalist, there to watch and scribble his opinion.
The first movie was Android [1982]...

... an unremarkable sci-fi starring Klaus Kinski. It didn’t impress me, I’ve never seen it since, and yet I’ve never forgotten it. Maybe the reason I’ve always remembered Android is because the following movie, Assault on Precinct 13 did impress me. I was captured by it, right from the opening credits with its distinctive and atmospheric synthesized theme music, one of John Carpenter’s movie trademarks. I’ve always loved nihilistic urban thrillers and this stands as one of the best. If it has the feel of a western, it’s probably because it is in fact an updated retelling of Howard Hawks’ 1959 western: Rio Bravo ...

... starring John Wayne, Ricky Nelson, Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson, Ward Bond and Walter Brennan. Assault on Precinct 13 has since gained cult-status and was remade in 2005.
Set in Anderson, Los Angeles, the movie opens with the killing by police of several members of a gang called Street Thunder, gunned down in an alley as they were on their way somewhere to raise hell.

The gang has stolen a huge amount of weapons and their four warlords, in reprisal, prowl the streets with murder in mind.

The gang seems intent on gunning down anyone who crosses their path, regardless of whether or not they are police. At the same time the gang are cruising, a father [Martin West] drives with his young daughter [Kim Richards], on their way to pick up grandma and talk her into moving in with them – rescuing her from the area. Police Lieutenant, Ethan Bishop [Austin Stoker], drives to his first assignment: baby sit a decommissioned and almost completely closed down precinct until it’s shut down for good.

There are only three people left on duty until he arrives: two secretaries: Leigh [Laurie Zimmer] and Julie [Nancy Loomis].

The jaded Captain Chaney [Henry Brandon] is less than welcoming. At the same time that this is happening, a prisoner transport bus has set off with three prisoners aboard: the most notorious is Napoleon Wilson [Darwin Joston], a murderer on his way to death row.

The others are Wells [Tony Burton], and a third prisoner who is feverish with an unknown illness, causing them to divert to the Anderson Precinct to quarantine the prisoner until they can get a doctor to diagnose what is wrong him. Bishop grants permission and the prisoners are transferred to the holding cells. The four gang members start their killing spree by killing the little girl as she is getting an ice cream, along with the owner of the ice cream van. Her father takes the ice cream van owners gun and sets off in a high-speed car chase after the gang. He manages to kill one of the warlords [Frank Doubleday], and flees when the rest of the gang chase after him. He arrives at the station, crumbling into shock-induced catatonia, unable to convey what has happened to the staff on duty.

The phone lines and the electricity to the station are cut and the assault begins, the gang using silencers on their weapons, so all is heard are the sounds of breaking glass and bullets impacting walls and other objects. As the attack intensifies, Bishop is then forced to arm the prisoners to help fend off the gang.

There are some inspired moments of humor with Wells and Wilson settling their dispute with a round of “Potatoes”:

WELLS & WILSON [in unison]: "One potato, two potato, three potato, four! Five potato, six potato, seven potato, more! Eight potato, nine potato, ten potato, eleven! Kiss my ass and go to heaven! Y-O-U spells YOU!"
[Wilson beats Wells]. 

The survivors holding the “SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL POLICE” sign as a shield during the last stand: 

Darwin Joston undeniably steals the show with his laconic, nonchalant portrayal of Napoleon Wilson ...

... a man born out of time and for who chains is all he has to look forward to. He gets all the memorable lines.
While observing the sun setting through the bus window: “Another one gone. When you’re in my position, days are like women; each one is so goddam precious. They always end up leaving you.”
Approach him and his first question will always be: “Got a smoke?”
Throw him a compliment and he’ll always answer: “I have moments.”
While waiting for you to make a move, he’ll remark: “Can’t argue with a confident man.”
Ask him how he got his name and he’ll shrug you off with: “I’ll tell you some time.”
Press him on when that time will be and he’ll answer: “At the moment of truth.”
There is also a nicely underplayed element of chemistry between Leigh and Wilson:

I’ve enjoyed many of John Carpenter’s movies and this remains one of my favorites. With Assault on Precinct 13 he proved that, even with a low-budget, he can make a little go a long way, and still turn out an assured, suspenseful and entertaining work. Many argue that much of the acting is wooden, and the dialogue is stilted and clich├ęd. Maybe. But, for all its faults, this is a stripped-to-the-bones thriller without pretentions and a siege-theme story with the same intense and claustrophobic menace of Night of the Living Dead [1968] thrown in for good measure, a talent he would show again with The Thing [1982]. I would choose this classic over the glossy, over-hyped rehashes we see released year after year.

Whether or not it really has anything to say about gang crime, urban violence, and the rot at the center of society is another moot point, but credit has to be given to stories like Assault on Precinct 13 for making us sit up and take notice of the problem.

Personally, I think Bishop is onto something: it could have something to do with the sun spots.

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