Assault on Precinct 13/Review 2

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< Assault on Precinct 13

"Assault on Precinct 13," John Carpenter's 1976 cult classic, is the third John Carpenter movie I've seen. Like every film fan, I admire Halloween as one of the most terrifying movies ever made, and "The Fog" brings some genuine chills despite some of its more cheesy elements. Both films raised my expectations for "Assault," as did the number of laudatory reviews I'd seen for Carpenter's movie, only the second in his career.

"Assault" is Carpenter's much ballyhooed attempt to update the "Western" genre of film, and specifically "Rio Bravo," by bringing the genre cliches from the plains of the Southwest to the gritty streets of L.A. In many respects, "Assault" is a triumph, but in other key areas, "Assault" falls flat on its face.

From the opening credits, you can tell this is a John Carpenter movie. First of all, Carpenter uses his trademark economy of notes on a synthesizer to create a haunting soundtrack, pulsing with dark power and ominous portent. In a creepy opening scene, six members of the "ultraviolent, racially mixed youth gang, 'Street Thunder'" get gunned down by shotgun-toting cops. In a typical Carpenter twist, we don't see the cops' faces during the shootout, only their guns . . . are the gang members the anonymous killers to be feared, or is it the anonymous, faceless cops?

Soon, other members of the gang swear vengeance against the city and the cops by slitting their arms and pouring blood into a bowl. A reckoning is on the horizon.

Carpenter builds suspense with all his trademark skill. Gang members cruise the city streets armed to the teeth with guns and silencers until an infamous confrontation with a father and daughter at an ice cream truck in a scene ominously titled, "The Wrong Flavor." (This scene is as terrifying in its brutality as any scene from Carpenter's horror films, and still gives me goosebumps.)

The father ends up running to Precinct 13, which is slated for closure and is only populated by a skeleton crew of two cops and two administrative assistants. Street Thunder is naturally on the father's tail, and they aren't taking any prisoners. Compunding the horrors of the evening for the small staff of the precinct, a prisoner-transfer bus has had to make an emergency stop because one of the inmates is sick, which leads to convicted murderer and Death Row inmate Napoleon Wilson being locked up downstairs. Wilson's crimes are never discussed in detail, but it's clear from the wide berth everyone gives Wilson that he's a baddie of titanic proportions.

As darkness falls, Street Thunder (a faceless, innumerable band of street thugs) lays siege to Precinct 13, alternating machine-gun bombardments (stylishly achieved with silencers, so the bullets have a spooky "pinging" sound rather than a booming roar) with mindless frontal assaults. Those inside the Precinct who survive the first wave of bullets join forces, cops and prisoners, to fight off the gang. Can they survive the assault with low ammunition, no phone lines, and a seemingly limitless supply of murderers on their doorstep?

Carpenter brings a lot of flair to this movie, particularly when you consider that the budget for the flick was reportedly around $100,000 . . . low even by 1976 standards for an action flick. Carpenter uses a surprisingly large bag of director's tricks for a guy making his second movie to create some genuine tension in "Assault," and the entire movie is marked by a darkness and a bleakness that is quite powerful.

All that is to the good. Unfortunately, "Assault" is marked by one of the weaker scripts you're going to find this side of George Lucas, and the acting isn't much better. (What does it say when the most convincing line readings are given by Tony Burton as the convict Wells, an actor who is most famous as Apollo Creed's trainer from the "Rocky" movies? Nothing good, I assure you.) Napoleon Wells is played by Darwin Joston, and while everyone acts like Wells is the ultimate hard case, Joston completely fails to inject any of the rakish charm into Wells that the script labors so mightily to achieve. Austin Stoker plays the straight "white hat" lead as the top cop in the Precinct fairly well, but again he's handicapped by some incredibly wooden dialogue. Laurie Zimmer tries to inject some sultry sexuality into her role as Laurie, a secretary at the Precinct, but on a couple of moments you can actually see her looking at the floor to find her marks so she knows where to stand.

The gang members of "Street Thunder" are a mixed bag, as well. If you rate them against the gang members of "The Warriors," to choose another period piece about the gangs, or against any recent flick about gangs, they come across as almost comically impersonal and robotic (with the powerful exception of the ice cream cone scene, of course). But for 1976, "Street Thunder" was probably a pretty scary bunch. And if you view "Street Thunder" as a representation of the mindless evil prevalent in the disintegrating American society of the 1970's, they are pretty spooky as they just keep on coming in wave after wave. (But still, modern audiences may not be spooked by a gang where a couple of the members are clearly wearing pressed khakis.)

It's difficult writing a review of a "cult classic" where you haven't drunk the Kool-Aid like everyone else. You just know that you're setting yourself up for the patented, "he just didn't get it" response. But after seeing the heights Carpenter can hit with his other movies and reading so many "five-star" reviews for "Assault," I had high expectations. In many respects, these expectations were met, but you can't give a glowing review to a movie where the dialogue and the acting are just so darn bad.

Reviewed by Biohazard - 12/31/07

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