Skip to main content

Lieutenant, you run this station like chicken night in Turkey.

Assault on Precinct 13

(SPOILERS) You can’t read a review of Assault on Precinct 13 with stumbling over references to its indebtedness – mostly to Howard Hawks – and that was a preface for me when I first caught it on Season Three of BBC2’s Moviedrome (I later picked up the 4Front VHS). In Precinct 13’s case, it can feel almost like an attempt to undercut it, to suggest it isn’t quite that original, actually, because: look. On the other hand, John Carpenter was entirely upfront about his influences (not least Hawks), and that he originally envisaged it as an outright siege western (rather than an, you know, urban one). There are times when influences can truly bog a movie down, if it doesn’t have enough going for it in its own right. That’s never the case with Assault on Precinct 13. Halloween may have sparked Carpenter’s fame and maximised his opportunities, but it’s this picture that really evidences his style, his potential and his masterful facility with music.

You had the latter with Dark Star, of course, but not in the signature, driving, character-in-its-own-right way that the Assault on Precinct 13 score works. Again, Halloween’s might be more famous, and Escape from New York’s more honed, but I think this may be his best scoring effort, and it’s certainly a position many a musician has agreed, sampling it left, right and centre (notably Bomb the Bass with 1991’s Megablast). Combined with clean, crisp the 35mm Panavision widescreen photography, you’re not left longing for the roaming Panaglide he’d take up with his next cinema release.

Indeed, cinematographer Douglas Knapp came with the director from Dark Star and would appear to have been most comfortable as a camera operator (and occasional director of photography in TV: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek: Voyager, Enterprise). It’s a shame Carpenter didn’t call on him again after Dean Cundey became a big cheese; it’s clear from his work with Gary Kibbe that he needed someone competent, and Knapp helps conjure an atmosphere here every bit as potent as Cundey later would.

What you notice in particular here, despite the often-amusing dialogue, is a ruthless economy of purpose. Assault on a Precinct 13 has a tip-top motor and it’s precision-calibrated. There are few distractions from that simple sense of direction and intent: to tighten the screws.

Which is why all the talk – Alex Cox, for one – about its influences is largely distracting from the point. Is it really “a complicated series of borrowings from other films”? That makes it sound like it’s weighed down by them (Rio Brava, Night of the Living Dead) along with the appropriating of lines of dialogue. As for “but overall the tone is real pastiche” … It may be a pastiche in that sense, but it doesn’t feel like one in execution. It feels fresh, whereas you usually carry a pastiche’s influences with you. But then, Cox has a bit of an axe to grind, and he isn’t JC’s biggest fan, as “the loyal opposition”: “The acting is awful. So are the costumes. There are only two women in the film and they both wear identical sweaters. They have identical shapes too” (this is true, but I’m not sure it’s either here or there). He also thinks They Live! (in my Moviedrome Guide, from 1990, it has the “!” – take that, Mandela Effect!) “too, degenerates into a mush of running, jumping shooting chasing” (as you’ll know, if you’ve seen a Cox movie, he has much more refined tastes).

The History of the Movies, edited by Ann Lloyd (first published in 1982, hence the briefest of paragraphs in my 1988 edition, summarising Carpenter up to Big Trouble in Little China) offered an essay on Carpenter’s oeuvre titled “States of Siege”. It duly goes details the lore, of a $200,000 budget (actually $100,000) and a 24-day shoot, namechecking Hawks and Romero. There are several cogent criticisms here, however, which go back to the tonal austerity I mentioned, that where it “cannot yet match up to Hawks is in the subtlety of his characterisations” and how the “excellent” cast – do you hear that, Alex? – are “curiously anonymous”.

This much is true. You don’t remember the characters the way you do those in Escape from New York – Darwin Joston’s murderer Napoleon Wilson is very much a proto Plissken (characters with iconic names), an Eastwood antihero with a moral code, a thing for cigarettes and a deadpan for every exchange. But Joston – Carpenter’s then next-door neighbour – doesn’t linger in the mind. Austin Stoker, Tony Burton and Laurie Zimmer are all entirely serviceable as the lieutenant, a reluctant convict and a secretary respectively, but they don’t leave much impression. As Movies says “It is the situation, not the people that carries the film”.

And Carpenter sets up the situation expertly. True, the execution-style opening is almost apologetic (the motivation doesn’t really scan, and feels like a sop to any kind of need for a reason for random violence), but once the “culturally confused” street gang (as Kim Newman put it) is out gunning for public and police, the atmosphere of pregnant violence is potent. It erupts with an infamous scene – the MPAA expected it to be removed to get the picture an R – in which a little girl (Kim Richards) is shot through her ice cream, chillingly casually, by Frank Doubleday’s “White Warlord” (also featured, in the cultural confusion, are “Chicano Warlord”, “Oriental Warlord” and “Black Warlord”). Doubleday would later play fright-haired Romero in Escape from New York and a mercenary in Broadcast News. It’s the revenge taken by the girl’s fevered father Lawson (Martin West) that initiates the siege, as he flees into the decommissioned Anderson police precinct, also housing the impromptu passengers of a state prison bus.

That scene is, in my estimation, crucial to the impact of the movie. It establishes that anything could happen. Anything transgressive in its “shattering brutality”. IMDB really needs citations, but it quotes Mel Gibson observing he was a fan of movies like that which “went too far”. It’s interesting, then, that Carpenter berates himself in retrospect, suggesting it was “pretty horrible” and explicit and “I don’t think I’d do it again, but I was young and stupid”. It’s the Spielberg apologia for having Roy Neary go off in the ship and leaving his family all over again; maturity obscures the boldness and power of the initial choice. If Carpenter really wants to repent for something “pretty horrible” he needs look no further than the much more recent Vampires.

History of Movies had it that “Unlike any of his later films, Assault on Precinct 13 carries a stunning conviction; it comes altogether too close for comfort”. And there is a sense of doorstep terror, of the dad pursued by a relentless gang, of an isolated police station in the middle of a city at the mercy of marauders. The zombie motif, of unstoppable tableau aggressors in wide shot, would be called on again by the director, in both The Fog and Prince of Darkness, but its particular strength here is the incongruity of the uncanny as a representation of the real world (Carpenter had the drop on later gang movies, The Wanderers and The Warriors). Like the exposition at the outset, Carpenter promulgates a sense of genre displacement, of a zombie movie that gives documentary-style time codes.

Kim Newman considered the picture “accomplished”, recognising well enough that it merited a few paragraphs in Nightmare Movies, whereby the gang could be found “besieging an isolated police station with tactics that derive equally from Romero’s Living Dead and the Indians of Apache Drums”. Most of all, what’s striking about Assault on Precinct 13 is that it’s easy to look at – most of – the director’s ’90s work and wonder “Was there anything really that great about Carpenter at all? Did he just get lucky with a few solid scores and a great DP?” You rewatch Assault on Precinct 13 and you recognise that no, absolutely, he was a great director; this shows him at his most stripped down and effective. As for the remake. Functional, okay, forgettable. The only Carpenter movie I’d like to see remade is Dark Star, but in the opposite extreme. Give it a Valerian-sized budget. And the same beachball alien.


Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Do you know that the leading cause of death for beavers is falling trees?

The Interpreter (2005) Sydney Pollack’s final film returns to the conspiracy genre that served him well in both the 1970s ( Three Days of the Condor ) and the 1990s ( The Firm ). It also marks a return to Africa, but in a decidedly less romantic fashion than his 1985 Oscar winner. Unfortunately the result is a tepid, clichéd affair in which only the technical flourishes of its director have any merit. The film’s main claim to fame is that Universal received permission to film inside the United Nations headquarters. Accordingly, Pollack is predictably unquestioning in its admiration and respect for the organisation. It is no doubt also the reason that liberal crusader Sean Penn attached himself to what is otherwise a highly generic and non-Penn type of role. When it comes down to it, the argument rehearsed here of diplomacy over violent resolution is as banal as they come. That the UN is infallible moral arbiter of this process is never in any doubt. The cynicism