Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, March 11, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1976)

2. Assault on Precinct 13

Carpenter has always been fairly open about his love for the films of John Ford in general and for “Rio Bravo” specifically. I can’t count the number of interview were he’s mentioned it as his favorite film. This admiration manifested itself very early in his career with “Assault on Precinct 13,” a modern day set, feature-length homage to Ford’s masterpiece. While certainly a solid action B-movie in its own right, this one is most interesting to spot Carpenter’s emerging style and trademarks.

The story is simplistic enough. A police building on its last night before being moved across the city, staffed by a skeleton crew, is besieged by a vicious street gang. Circumstance forces a convicted criminal and known killer into the situation with the cops. There’s a brief justification provided for the gang’s actions. A somewhat tacked on opening scene shows the cops shooting down four of the gang’s own, motivating their violence against the police, as well as the street crooks coming into the possession of a crate of stolen weapons. However, the why and how are less important then the actual situation. The film is primarily about the bonds forged between the rag-tag group, friendships and mutual respect coming into being while under fire. The ending, which shows cop and criminal walking off together, seems to nail this theme home.

Carpenter’s direction features several visual quirks that would become his trademarks later on. There’s a POV shot, a car racing down an all-too-thin seeming street. When night falls in the second half, the shadows are dark enough to remind me of “Halloween,” especially when you have blank evil faces emerging from it. Napoleon Wilson is the first Carpenter tough guy anti-hero. Wilson was convicted of murder, though the film doesn’t go into much detail concerning that. He’s willingness for violence and rough-and-tumble attitude makes him an ideal guy to have around once the invasion starts. (Especially when he’s cracking goon’s arms in half.) This is the prototype for Snake Plissken, MacReady, and John Nada. It’s not hard to imagine Kurt Russell in the part. Like “The Thing” and numerous other films to follow, this is an ensemble piece. The most charming moments, like some stray banter or an inexplicable take on Rock-Paper-Scissor called “Hot Potato,” strictly revolve around our guys talking to each other.

Perhaps the most prominent sign of JC here is the film’s antagonists. The Street Lightening gang is the earliest example of Pure, Natural Evil: Directionless, without identity, and ruthlessly violent. “Assault on Precinct 13” is not a horror film but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that its filmmaker would become a leading force in the genre. The gang members recall the ghouls of “Night of the Living Dead.” There seem to be a limitless supply of them. Their ruthlessness is established early on, during the film’s most notorious scene. These guys gun down an innocent little girl in cold blood without even flinching. Even though the movie really push the girl’s innocence (Pigtails? An ice cream truck in the middle of a warzone?), it’s a startling scene of shock. The gang’s multi-ethnic origins and an early scene of blood-mixing seem to suggest a mythic, extra-normal quality. The movie recalls two famous urban legends during its run time. A daring escape is cut short by the Killer in the Backseat. In maybe my favorite moment, a ghoulish discovery starts with mysterious sounds dripping down on the roof of a car. Despite its horror elements, this is still a pure action movie. Much of the film is made up of gunfire and the best action comes during a thrilling shoot-out montage, which is fantastically edited.

The movie is constructed extremely well but cult followings are born of memorable characters. Austin Stoker’s Ethan Bishop is almost an everyman figure, a laid-back veteran cop, who shows unexpected strength. Stoker gives a good performance, endearing small gestures with a lot of character. Darwin Joston as Napoleon doesn’t give a bad performance but is a bit on the underwhelming side. Maybe his unassuming appearance is intentional but he certainly doesn’t look like a bad ass. Joston still does his best to make the characters repeated catchphrases, about cigarettes and how he got his name, funny and natural. He also has good romantic chemistry with Laurie Zimmer. As far as female leads go, she’s tough, gunning down a number of baddies. There’s a slow, sexy boil to the way she carries herself and says her lines. Tony Burton, as Wilson’s prison buddy Wells, is probably the film’s comic relief. I like him a lot. He’s not exactly a coward but is definitely weary of his bad luck. Despite being so prominently featured in the first half, Martin West’s grieving father Lawson is mostly in a state of shock through the rest of the film. The closest thing to a name actor in the film is Charles Cypher as the crotchety prison warden. I wish he was given more to do.

The movie’s climax proves a little underwhelming. Everything is cleaned up by a giant, off-screen explosion. The tension never quite gets a tight as it was suppose to be, mostly because the cast prove a little too good at shooting down creeps. Carpenter’s other trademark, a self-composed synth score, does its best to maintain the thrill. It’s a very catchy, smooth melody that is maybe a little too electronic. If the director’s intention with “Assault on Precinct 13” was to create a calling card, consider that mission accomplished. It’s a solid action thriller and would pave the way for Carpenter’s best, most iconic films. [7/10]

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