John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 (1976) is a masterclass in fighting the odds.
Our besieged protagonists are marooned in a soon-to-be derelict police station in an abandoned neighborhood, there’s no power, phone lines are cut and there’s not much in the way of weaponry either. Oh, there’s also two violent prisoners heading to Death Row on their side, a catatonic man and a frightened secretary. AND it’s the station manager’s first night. If Danny Glover were about right now, you could only hear him say: “I’m gettin’ too old for this shit!”
Assault… is a fairly straightforward beast of a flick that doesn’t leave much to the imagination. The opening scene is just six gang member being slaughtered by cops. Although, the whole thing doesn’t give you a lot room for sympathy with the police here. There’s half a second between the end of the verbal warning and the subsequent barrage of bullets. They even shoot them in the balls and face. What’s that about?!
The gang, by the way, are called Street Thunder. Much less a fearsome collection of hoods than a hair metal cover band.
As luck would have it, there are parallels between Carpenter’s short, sharp, shock of a film and two we have already looked at: Mad Max and The Warriors. The theme of heroism rears its head in Assault. The film by its very nature is one of survival and daring, but early on the script alludes to the dangerous lack of public faith these particular embattled authorities face.
“There are no heroes anymore, Lieutenant… just men who follow orders” a police Captain tells our main man Lieutenant Ethan Bishop over the car radio. Max’s Sergeant, the flamboyant Fifi, is teased by Max and the other Interceptors for his boundless optimisim (“We’re gonna give ‘em back their heroes, Max!”). The world was at a point where it had seen the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth, Richard Nixon, resign in disgrace over the Watergate Scandal. If it was so evidently a mire of corruption at the top, where were the heroes after all?
With the deaths in the film’s opening igniting a gang-induced blood feud, events conspire against all in the station and soon the siege takes many violent twists and turns. The movie is a bloodfest for sure. The gang, making various (if totally dumb) attempts to enter the station, are gunned down in what seems by the thousands. Not bad for a mish-mash of inexperienced gunslingers with limited ammo.
Carpenter, who actually directed, edited, scored and wrote the film, creates an atmosphere akin to the coolest video game you never played. Thudding synth notes are big, fat signposts for the multiple action sequences and Carpenter’s predilection for holding the piercing high note is used again and again here. Where music can be deployed as nothing more than nameless, forgettable filler by blockbusters, Carpenter’s application of sound is an extension of the movie’s rising tension and loud, violent sequences. It’s why he’s one of the greats.
It’s no sucker for fawning revisionists either. Assault was picked up early by critics who praised its resourcefulness, relentlessness and delivery. Even the fact the death of a young girl, shot down by a psychopathic gang member, didn’t raise much in the way of controversy. Nearly 40 years on, the death of children in TV, film or video games is still a red-hot potato.
One critic highlighted the movie’s almost supernatural suspension. It’s a keen insight. The gang operate soundlessly and kill without question or remorse. Their numbers are strong and their origins mysterious. Their knack for silently removing all traces of each attack to ensure no passers-by become quizzical is unexplained and adds another element of danger, futility even, for our heroes.
If Carpenter intended to send a message via his art then it’s either very subtle or one doesn’t exist. Is it about the decline of society; the thin line between crime and heavy-handed application of the law; fear of the unknown? Nah. It’s just a cool movie.