Friday, April 18, 2014

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976): Strip it down

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
dir: John Carpenter

In the 1970s, actions and dramas were all about gritty grindhouse style dramas full of anti-heroes and despair. Assault on Precinct 13 seems almost anachronistic for 1976, and is pointing to the good vs bad era of the 1980s.

Assault on Precinct 13 is a stripped down grindhouse affair about a gang who had four members shot while they were on the prowl and declare a war on...well...everything, but mainly the police. Their opening salvo is on innocent victims, but one intended victim flees to a police station which is understaffed since it will be closed by morning. Equipment has already been moved, and it's supposed to be a quiet night as they also put a sheriff on for his first night.

In order to beef up the number of people at the police station, a prison bus transporting convicts is waylaid due to a very sick inmate, and have to hole up in Precinct 13 while the driver wants to look for a doctor. But, in the midst of this, the siege starts and police and inmates have to join forces to duke it out.

While the movie is just setup followed by an extra long tension-filled and bullet-ridden assault, Carpenter is working in political commentary on the edges. The cast is surprisingly multi-racial, with a black sheriff leading the way, as well as a black and white inmate. On the gang side, it's 2 white guys, a black guy and a hispanic dude who present the actual face of the rather large gang full of disposable bodies. This is a racial makeup that is rather multi-cultural and presents the idyllic mixing pot that we strive for. An African-American leading actor, and no single race condemnation, instead leaving it to be gang vs cops and killers. Contrast that to the racially fraught remake, where the lead cop is now Ethan Hawke, and all of the criminals in transit are black or hispanic.

But, the most surprising is that the cops are not the bad guys in Assault on Precinct 13. In the 1970s, the cops were generally presented as renegades, ineffectuals, or the enemies. Even when they were the heroes, they had many anti-hero tendencies, such as killing random people and doing things their own way. Assault on Precinct 13 has a much more 1980s way of looking at things, which is that the sheriff on duty is actually a good guy who just wants to do a good job and actually merely finds himself under siege by a rogue gang.

By the 1980s, cop action movies, while also increasing the violence, tended to have more of a white hat/black hat way of looking at things where the cops, even the crazy ones a la Lethal Weapon, were considered to be right and just. This fits in with the characterization of Assault on Precinct 13, where the opening killings of the gang members is shown to be fully justified because they're trying to rob what looks like an apartment building. In the infamous central pivot point, the gang members shoot both an ice cream man and an adolescent white girl with blond pigtails who only wanted vanilla twist. The gang that is assaulting the cops are shown to be unequivocally terrible people.

Even in the 1970s blaxploitation films, which presented an us vs them mentality, the cops were generally seen to be power structures from the white man holding down the ghettos. The only way to overcome the neighborhood's problems is to rise up yourself and do it because the police certainly weren't going to help you do anything.

Assault on Precinct 13 is surprisingly self-assured for only a 2nd feature. John Carpenter had only directed Dark Star prior to Assault, and his dedication to powder keg pacing is astounding. The tension is rarely ever cut with humor, with the shock of the ice cream truck scene perhaps being the only true bit of black humor in the whole movie. His framing is stylish and iconic, and pretty much every choice Carpenter makes adds up to a solid stand-off film.

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