Wednesday, October 17, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)

Music/Screenplay/Editing/Direction by John Carpenter
Produced by J.S. Kaplan
Cinematography by Douglas Knapp

Starring
Austin Stoker as Bishop
Darwin Joston as Napoleon Wilson
Laurie Zimmer as Leigh
Tony Burton as Wells
Nancy Loomis as Julie


"There are no heroes anymore, Bishop. Just men who follow orders."
--dialogue from the movie Assault on Precinct 13

Once upon a time in the west, there was the system.
The system was corrupt and oppressive.
Within it lay the seeds of its own destruction:
The discontent of outlaws, hustlers, street entrepreneurs, and poor young men
Full of anger, in love with guns, in love with dying on their feet.
The system forced the outlaws to band together,
Brothers in blood.
This is a story
Of the war
Between the system and the blood brothers.
--a poem I wrote in tribute to Assault on Precinct 13 sometime in 2005

We begin in an urban labyrinth with a multi-ethnic crew of gangbangers looking to procure some arms, sneaking through alleyways and passages. A cop voice commands them to freeze. They bolt. The cops fire their shotguns until they're out of shells. Justice is a pile of corpses.

Welcome to Anderson, a ghetto somewhere in the wastelands of Los Angeles sometime in the late 1970s. Here, the cops shoot first and don't even bother to ask questions later. The cops seem to think they can just shoot poor gangbangers with nothing to lose and not have to pay a price later. These police have been watching too many Clint Eastwood movies.

The various ethnic street gangs--blacks, Latinos, Asians, whites--have decided that they aren't gonna put up with the bullshit anymore. Instead of killing each other over dead-end racial hatreds they are gonna team up to obliterate the system with a wave of no limits violence. The warlords of the different ethnic factions gather in someone's living room, slice their arms, and mingle their blood in a single glass. There are no more racial distinctions, no more hatred based on skin color, no more factions, no more barriers. In this scene we see the advent of a true brotherhood of blood, one which is necessary to catalyze the auto-destruct destiny of a society corrupted by greed, wars of empire, and racism. The system seeks to oppress the poor and turn them against one another in deadly combat for economic opportunities legal and illegal. The blood brothers are going to kill the system or die trying.

The blood brothers have knocked over an armory. Now they got the same kind of arms as the National Guard. Now, they can shoot back.

And any innocent or good-hearted people that get put down in the crossfire, well, that's just an overdose of reality for some people, isn't it?

The blood brothers decide that the first target of their aborning insurgency will be an ice cream man. No particular reason. It's more about inspiring terror through random acts of violence. The ensuing mayhem draws in another combatant who kills one of the blood brothers and then seeks asylum at a police station which is about to be closed down due to budget cuts. The blood brothers decide to lay siege to the decaying police post that has just been zeroed out of the municipal budget at Precinct 9, Division 13. Yes, that's right, it's actually called Precinct 9, not 13. But I guess the idea is that the legend of this fateful night will be remembered as Precinct 13. Assault on Precinct 9--nah, that just doesn't work. Doesn't sound as cool.

Precinct 9 is to be closed come sun-up. A competent, honest policeman named Bishop (Austin Stoker) is sent to supervise the precinct in its final hours before the moving vans show up to clear out the last of the decrepit file cabinets and old contraband lockers. Bishop is the real deal: a police with heart, spine, and guts. And a sense of humor. No pork to be found on this man. He's the kind of guy you would want to serve under. He's the kind of guy who will never rise in the system. Early on he's in radio contact with his superior officer and the captain asks Bishop if he wants to be a hero on his first day out. Bishop says, "Yes, sir!" and means it. The captain tells Bishop that there are no heroes, only men who follow orders. The system has no need for heroes, or humanity, or justice, or even plain old competence and decency. The system requires only continuity, stability, and expansion of its dominion where possible.

The blood brothers require only fast trigger fingers, good aim, a willingness to kill, and an eagerness to die.

The system and the blood brothers are about to collide.

Right before the all-out attack, a bus carrying prisoners bound for death row pulls into Precinct 9. One of the   prisoners has a tubercular hacking cough, and the state policeman in charge of the convicts wants to use the telephone at Precinct 9 to call a doctor. But the phone lines are dead. The telecom must've disconnected services already. Or maybe the wires were cut . . .

Soon, cops and prisoners will have to depend on each other to survive a tsunami of bullets generated by the army of the blood brothers who are determined to annihilate Precinct 9 and all who reside within as their declaration of total war against the system.

Assault on Precinct 13 is a tense, effective thriller exploring what happens when decent people get caught up in the conflict of a corrupt system and a seriously pissed-off revolutionary force seeking to destroy that corrupt system. There's no indication that the blood brothers have a new regime in mind to replace the system; rather they are acting out of a deep, abiding rage at the injustice of their society. They are possessed by this rage, yet they do not go around yelling slogans or making speeches. They do not speak. Some of them yell in pain when shot to death, but that's about it. Even their weapons have been silenced. They have transformed themselves from narco-entrepreneurs into a force of death, a hydra-headed grim reaper that refuses to negotiate with a terrorist police state. That they have become terrorists themselves is not so much an irony as an inevitability. Push people to the limit and maybe they break. Or they might become monsters who fight back with everything they've got.

Inside Precinct 9 you have the capable Bishop and two secretaries: Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and Julie (Nancy Loomis). They are joined by two convicts bound for death row: Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) and Wells (Tony Burton). Most of the rest of  the people on board the prison transport bus are killed in the first attack by the blood brothers. It's just down to five people--one cop, two secretaries, and two convicted murderers.

A question arises: can the three straight citizens inside the precinct trust the two condemned convicts? The answer, considering the larger situation, is weirdly inspiring: yes, they can.

Or, maybe, it's more like: yes, they don't have a choice.

The siege intensifies. Bullets tear through the lower floor in a never-ending barrage of lead. Suicide street soldiers burst through windows and doors only to be obliterated by shotgun blasts from Bishop and Napoleon. The gangbangers have been compared in other reviews of Assault on Precinct 13 to the zombies of Night of the Living Dead, but I would say they're more like the Shape in Halloween: superflat killing machines who've willed their humanity into the off position. The system wanted monsters to practice its police state brutality upon, and the system always gets what it wants. This is the war that everybody wanted.

Except for the five people inside Precinct 9. Except for most people in the world who haven't given up their humanity, whether they're cops or cons or secretaries or the good, the bad, and the ugly. That's where the drama of this movie comes from: seeing people with integrity fighting to survive against a disaster created by a system that went off the rails a long time ago.

Bishop brings his humor and optimism to the war. He's always looking for a way out, a way to survive. He's played with confidence and understated wit by Austin Stoker.

Napoleon Wilson is probably the character most people remember, he has all the best lines, and is played with ironic nobility by Darwin Joston. He was on his way to certain death early that morning. Now, at least, he'll get to die fighting.

Once the lead starts to fly, Leigh has to channel her inner gunslinger. Laurie Zimmer brings a strange toughness and sense of trauma to her character. She's not really indestructible. But, once the war is on, if you lay a hand on her she will shoot you in the fucking chest.

Tony Burton plays Wells as a man cursed. He rails against his own bad luck, and fights his selfish urges to do the right thing. But what's the right thing in a situation of moral insanity? Who's gonna care if a condemned man decides to stand on principle?

Nancy Loomis has kind of a thankless role as Julie. Julie's the person who cracks up, and so she isn't given as much to do as the rest of the main cast. Loomis would later go on to a significant role in Halloween, but here she's the character that a lot of audience members will probably find testing their patience. The audience is kind of like the system and the blood brothers in that sense: show weakness and they'll cut you down . . .

John Carpenter directs the action in widescreen format giving an old time western movie feel to the action, but he also keeps it brisk and gritty. Unlike those old John Wayne movies, nice people get killed in horrible ways once the madness of war is unleashed. Carpenter, as screenwriter, supplies a lot of clever dialogue, some of it cribbed from Rio Bravo and Once Upon a Time in the West, but that's just stealing from the best, isn't it? The movie doesn't dig for any kind of profound political statements but just shows how one situation piles on another until it reaches a boiling point. Carpenter's film stays close to the main characters inside the police station. His focus is on how these people fight against a tide of  (to them) incomprehensible violence. They don't have time to analyze and make policy recommendations. They fight to survive.

The blood brothers are a shadowy army of the night, one part of their force sniping from a distance with assault rifles, and another part charging in as a suicide squad to breech the precinct. Although the movie is very low budget, and not 100% realistic, it is weirdly convincing in the moment. The long pauses in the action are clearly there to facilitate character scenes among the characters inside the precinct, but the uncertainty of what exactly the attackers are doing outside during these lulls (gathering ammo? taking a yoga break? dropping into a Starbucks to use the wifi?) adds to the creepy intensity of the action. Are the blood brothers just toying with their victims? Are they wondering what the precinct's defenders are doing? In a weird way it reminded me of the stealthy, warring vessels in Run Silent, Run Deep, although there are no submarines in Carpenter's movie, obviously.

The blood brothers are the first manifestation of that amorphous, destructive darkness which Carpenter would invoke in different forms in later movies: the Shape with his butcher knife in Halloween; the vengeful army of ghosts in The Fog; the gruesome, metamorphosing alien invader in The Thing; the goopy anti-God infected zombies of Prince of Darkness; the undercover Space Reaganites from They Live;  the wave of murderous lunacy in In the Mouth of Madness; the predatory bloodsuckers in Vampires; the insurgent Barsoomian spirits in Ghosts of Mars. What I find interesting to note here is that in Assault on Precinct 13 this amorphous spirit of homicide finds root in a real world situation of poverty, police state oppression, and undiluted rage. It's horror born of stark reality. No aliens or ghosts or anti-God slime or demons necessary.

Assault on Precinct 13 trailer:


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