15 July 2022

52 for '22: Assault on Precinct 13

Movie: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Method: TUBI

She was better off with Frankenstein

Why Did I watch this?

This really grew out of a realization that I claim to be a fan of John Carpenter but I've only actually seen the popular stuff. You know, The Thing (1982), They Live (1988), just the hits. I really wanted to expand my viewership of his filmography, so I watched In the Mouths of Madness (1994) and Vampires (1998) within the last year and was working my way to some of his better, earlier films. It was the Fourth of July and I thought this would be a fun American movie to watch!

What Did I know ahead of time?

I knew about the 2005 remake with Laurence Fishburne and Ethan Hawke. Okay, I forgot that they were in that one, but I do remember that coming out. I've never seen that. Next year! But you can figure it out, it's like, some kind of attack on a police station, probably? I did know it was partly inspired by Night of the Living Dead (1968), so I was kind of expecting that sort of thing, which is fairly accurate to what I got. But other than a general appreciation for Carpenter and a just of the plot, that was about it. Pretty good for around here, lads!

How Was It?

I read later that it was also heavily inspired by Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (1959). I don't really know what that is, I'll have to add it to 52 for '23! But anyway, this is a solid film. I kept thinking while watching this how they don't make films like this anymore. That is an old saying, but just a competently if not ruggedly shot, stable camera, natural lighting, relatively simple paced action flick. It's weird, almost hard to re-train my brain to engage with this.

I was also struck by the total lack of backstory. I really think Wikis have ruined us, we need so much backstory and lore to explain everything. That has creeped into movies if not only because that's what modern writers are used to reading (oh, shucks!). This movie would be revolutionary today. There are three big events here that just convalesce randomly to give us a wild wacky shoot out.Our hero, Bishop is basically just some dude newly promoted who gets put in charge of a precinct on its last night before it's shut down. There are prisoners being transferred (which, listen, I'm pretty sure Anderson, Los Angeles is fake, but there is no way a bus going from Las Cruces to Sonora would be traveling through downtown LA ghettos), one of whom is sick so they stop off temporarily. And there's a nihilistic gang killing random people for some reason, who murder an ice cream man and a little girl. The father takes revenge, tries to hide in the precinct, so the gang follows him and tries to shoot everyone.

And that's it. It's fascinating. There's no background for why this father did any of that or what the deal with this gang is. They don't have a leader or hardly even any lines. They just kind of keep coming until the movie ends. That's definitely where the zombie angle comes in, it's as if these goons could just be random anythings, just fodder for the heroes to shoot. And for a 70s movie, it does seem like it has clear cut heroes and villains, even if the prisoners kind of prove themselves to be heroic, too. But it's not like, "Oh, the police were evil all along!" No, it's more like, rational members of society against a non-stop onslaught of automatic weapons. Hey! Just when I thought I wasn't going to be able to connect this to modern police brutality, we find another angle. Hoorah.

There is a lot of set up here. The plot is a little convoluted, but I give Carpenter credit for laying it all out so that the sequence of events, even if they are fairly unrelated, all do coalesce and follow logically. It's just bizarre to me that there's no grudge against this precinct or the officers, no ulterior motive or secret plan. In 2022 there would be a gang leader played by Boyd Holbrook who'd be secret lost brothers with uncharismatic AF Scott Eastwood and there'd be a big emotional scene at the end with yelling and crying. None of that here. They just kind of shoot some flares while holding up a road sign as cover and that's it. The madness ceases. It's just uncanny how little is explained or connected, but more than that, how little needs to be.

It's ruthlessly efficient. Now, that first half that sets everything up definitely drags, like we didn't need to see Bishop take his time getting into his car in the morning. We don't really learn anything about him. Right about halfway the eponymous Assault starts and it's fun. It definitely just stops randomly, though. I don't know why. Maybe that's part of it - the gang is an entirely opaque mystery whose motivations are not divined in this film. They just do what they want. It's a lot of fun.

I haven't seen the remake, anyone want to sound off on what's that like in the comments? Because I doubt it's as bare bones as this is. I enjoyed Assault on Precinct 13 quite a bit and would recommend it - just reset your brain first. Oh, and I do want to note that it's clearly Precinct 9, District 13 as spoken in the film. I guess Precinct 13 just sounded better? I mean, it does...but they could have just said it was that precinct in the movie. I don't know. Again, just unexplained wackiness.

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