Assault On Precinct 13

assaultprecinct13Media scarcity is a solved problem. Digital distribution, availability and archiving mean that everything, however ephemeral, has permanence. Everything new is released on DVD. If you can’t find it on Netflix or Amazon, somebody has ripped it and you can find the torrent without much sweat. Couple that with universal information access through the internet, and you have a surfeit of constantly available media. Something as throwaway as Cellular is as well-preserved for consumption as The Rules Of The Game. This glut of constant new input raises a serious question: What’s the point in watching old movies?

Moreover, what’s the point of watching an old movie in a genre as tech-driven as the action-thriller? Stuff blowing up, stuff smashing around – impossible things have never been as readily realizable as right now, since nothing is beyond the imagination of a filmmaker with a budget. I think the question answers itself – at least once you’ve seen a few CG car chases. To anyone who’s been in a real car crash and seen metal smash into metal, watching an old movie’s car stunt-work is astounding. These are real cars doing real stuff, taking real curves and really crashing. The false viscera of modern, trumped-up 7.2 soundtracks and CG things flying everywhere doesn’t hold a candle to the car chase at the end of Magnum Force, where Dirty Harry sideswipes a parked van (a real van) and knocks it over the curb. There may be a thousand advantages that modern big-budget films have over the older big-budget movies, but few of them have that sort of clear-eyed reality, even if the squibs look faker.

Assault On Precinct 13 doesn’t have any car chases, or special effects that would be rendered toothless by CG. There aren’t any great acting turns or funny and exciting performances. And once the premise is clear, there aren’t any twists, just the grind of the minimalist plot moving to its (mostly) inevitable conclusion. Not even any nudity, exploitation fans. It is, in fact, pure premise and lean action, the sort of movie one could do a treat today (it was remade four years ago), but modern proclivities make this sort of film impossible to pull off in 2009. It’s something we should all lament.

The movie takes place in Division 13 of Precinct 9, in its last day of operation. The phone lines have been taken out, the cops all gone. A newly promoted Lieutenant Bishop guns for heroics, but is stuck doing graveyard duty in the defunct district with one other cop and a couple of secretaries. One pair of remarkable coincidences later, he’s in a stand-off against a street gang looking to kill everyone inside the building. Coincidence one: A transport truck carrying a hardened killer, a career criminal, and some guy with a cold needs to make an emergency stop at the precinct. Coincidence two: After watching his young daughter get shot in the street, a man kills a gang member and goes to the district, where the gang of enormous membership and zombie-like tenacity lays siege.

At a time when so many films wore their social consciousness on their sleeves1, Assault is remarkably, cheerfully artificial. As Bishop drives to the district, a news report mentions the gang’s “unusual multi-racial make-up.” They’re a fake movie gang, and writer/director/editor/composer John Carpenter doesn’t take pains to cover it up. This is a movie made of movie parts.

The main influences, Rio Bravo and Night Of The Living Dead, are the clearest, but Assault also takes a cue from Straw Dogs: The distraught father is the gang’s target, much like the kid killer David Warner in Peckinpah’s film, and in neither film will the authority figure allow intruders to transgress on his sphere of domination, even to the point of death (his or anyone else’s). Most of the other characters have origins in other films. The imprisoned murderer Wilson, who becomes instrumental in the station’s defense, has some dialogue and most of his character lifted from Once Upon A Time In The West. Laurie Zimmer’s Leigh is a Howard Hawks woman, keeper of cigarettes and able to tell at a glance when a gun held on her is out of bullets. In a more organic and less flashy sense, Assault On Precinct 13 is as cobbled together as any Quentin Tarantino movie.

The film doesn’t strive for realism. It strives for atmosphere and effect. When the gang members cruise around L.A., looking for someone to kill, the soundtrack cruises with them. It goes silent when they turn the corner, then it thumps back to life when they reappear. During the assault, they move en masse with no sense of planning, no concern for safety. And when the shooting stops, and a patrol car passes by, the bodies have disappeared, the cars used for cover back in their parking spaces. Where’s the logic? Where are the bodies hid? How do they move so quickly? Where do they all come from?

It doesn’t matter. Assault On Precinct 13 is pure cinema – what we see we accept, because we see it. The plot and characters are thin, but they exist to keep the action going. Modern screenplays sometimes mistake dime store psychology for proper characterization, and monologues and quirks for depth of character. But a movie like Assault thrives on simplicity: of character and premise and action. The villains want to kill the heroes. The heroes are heroes because they shoot the villains. That’s enough.

1Perhaps an exception to this is the opening scene where gang members are gunned down by faceless cops with hardly a shout of warning. It’s a massacre, and it may have precipitated the broad daylight murder of the young girl later in the film. These connections are never explicit. Carpenter wants us to figure these things out on our own, or dismiss them – whichever suits our enjoyment of the film.

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