Friday, July 25, 2014

Assault On Precinct 13!

Assault on Precinct 13 is the one John Carpenter movie I've never seen, until recently. It's a rather gritty film shot on location in Los Angeles which tells a simple but potent story about an abandoned police station which comes under seige by a vengeful street gang. That's a simple enough story, but like all stories it's all in how you tell it. And the way Carpenter chose, makes this movie stand out in the memory for its somber style.

The story goes as follows. Members of a street gang (which seems to be an amalgam of various ethnic backgrounds) are caught in an ambush by the police and all are killed. They swear vengeance and some members go on a silent patrol looking for someone to kill. They do kill an ice cream salesman and a little girl. Her father kills one of the gang members and they chase him into a police station which is largely abandoned since its being closed the very next day. A prison transport bus has stopped with a sick prisoner, when a large scale attack is begun on the building with silenced weapons. The police are mostly killed and the defense of the building is left to a single cop, a secretary, and two of the prisoners, one of whom is a notorious murderer headed to death row. The battle becomes ever more desperate with the gang members finally breaching the building.

That's a simple enough narrative, but what makes this movie memorable is the way in which the gang quietly and relentlessly attacks. We are given very little information about their motives, save what we can guess based on behavior and they speak almost not at all. When they are seen in the shadows from the windows of the station they are distant and quiet and their number is difficult to discern. I remember something similar in the clearly supernatural movie by Carpenter Prince of Darkness.

Carpenter has said this movie is an update of a Howard Hawks western, in particular Rio Bravo. But he's also indicated that George Romero's Night of the Living Dead was a source for inspiration. And that's what sets this one apart. The street gang in their silent implacable nature come across almost as supernatural agents intent on destroying the protagonists who are never really sure why they are under attack, other than they had the misfortune to be in the station when the attack came.

This is an imperfect movie with some uneven acting, but a standout performance by Darwin Josten as the always cool murderer who helps the cop who treated him with respect is memorable. Also Laurie Zimmer gives a very restrained performance as a secretary to rises to the challenges with aplomb and relative grace. These two have an attraction for one another, but smartly it's little developed beyond some mild tension between the two.

This movie has been remade and typically it became an entertaining action flick, but this original one is that and more. It's got an atmosphere thanks to the staging and the score which becomes almost more important than the singular actions. The sense of threat to the status quo, of a society on the brink is very much in evidence. Creepy stuff!

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  1. Nice review, Rip! I haven't seen this yet.

    1. Thank. I really think this one is a must see for Carpenter fans. His early touches are all there, and I don't think I said enough about the score which by Carpenter and very moody as always.

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