Thursday, May 14, 2015

Film Friday: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Let’s talk about John Carpenter’s second film: 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13. This is one of those films that film-buffs love, and deservedly so. Indeed, this film is fascinating in so many ways. What interests me, however, is just how deeply conservative this film is, especially given the fact that Carpenter is rather liberal.


Heavily influenced by Howard Hawks’s westerns, particularly Rio Bravo, Assault on Precinct 13 involves exactly what the title suggests. As the story opens, newly promoted Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is ordered to oversee the Anderson Police Precinct in the Anderson ghetto of Los Angeles for the night. The station has been moved and only a handful of staff remain at the Anderson Station to shut it down.
As background, we are told that a ruthless gang, who call themselves Street Thunder, has stolen automatic weapons and is now in a war with the police. After seeing a group of gang members gunned down, we see the multiracial leaders of the gang swear a blood oath and then drive around looking for people to kill.

Meanwhile, we see two other subplots unfold. First, a group of prisoners, including multiple-murderer Napoleon Wilson, are being transported from one prison to another so he can wait on death row. One of the three prisoners becomes sick and their bus stops at the Anderson Station.
The second subplot involves a man who takes his daughter into the Anderson ghetto with the intent of asking their housekeeper to move in with them. I suspect Carpenter makes a gay reference here but I have no proof (the man and his daughter plan to tell the housekeeper that they have a spare room now that his male roommate is dead). As the man stops to call for directions, his daughter sees an ice cream truck. She goes to get ice cream, but the gang leaders stop and kill her and the ice cream peddler. The girl’s father races over, grabs the gun the ice cream peddler had in his truck, chases the gang bangers, and kills one of them. They then chase him until he runs into the Anderson Station.

A siege begins, with the gang cutting off the power and phones to the Anderson Station and periodically trying to rush the building. It is a hopeless fight the defenders must win, though they are short on ammunition and people.

Why This Film Works

This is such a fascinating film to me on many levels. For example, on a purely technical level, this film is awful. Much of the writing is stilted and ridiculous. The actors are often wooden. The action is poorly staged. The plot is far-fetched. And so on. Yet, this is a really good film.

What works here are the “buts” to each of the complaints I just listed. The visual style is muddy and pedestrian and the action is poorly staged, but it makes the film feel honest in a way that smoother choreography and artistic shots of doves flying through windows as the heroes draw their guns in slow motion simply cannot provide. The actors are often wooden, but at other times they are brilliant. Co-leads Austin Stoker and Darwin Joston in particular provide some very subtle, excellently done moments that say so much more than the dialog conveys. A good example of this is how Joston, who goes through the whole film asking for cigarettes, conveys subtle shock when Stoker becomes the first cop to apologize for not being able to provide a cigarette. His shock at being treated with respect tells us reams about Stoker’s character as a genuinely good guy.
Continuing, the plot is definitely far-fetched, but it’s not implausible or so unlikely that you doubt it. What’s more, the plot is streamlined and provides just enough explanation to understand the film, but not enough to make the film feel convoluted. The writing is interesting too. Much of it is stilted and kind of silly:
Convict: “Aren’t you going to wish me good luck?”
Cops: “Good luck.”
Convict: “Two cops wishing me good luck? Now I know I’m doomed.”
But much of it is rather clever and much of it is funny. Joston in particular tells good stories throughout and he has some witty lines, such as when the woman who falls for him asks what to do with her final bullets:
Leigh: “I have two shots left. Should I save them for us?”
Joston: “Save ‘em for the first two assholes that come through that vent.”
Leigh: “What do I use on the rest of them?”
Joston: “Then you have to wing it.”
What really makes this film work, however, is the three male leads. Each of these guys Austin Stoker (Lt. Ethan Bishop), Darwin Joston (Napoleon Wilson) and Charles Cyphers (Special Officer Starker) are treated as leading men rather than supporting actors. Each has a strong back-story, gets solid screen time, and has lines which make them the focus of the story when they are in it. And each actor takes these opportunities and handles them perfectly. The result is that you end up with three strong stories that intertwine to form the main story rather than one story with some minor characters providing filler. This makes for a strong film because you are constantly interested in what is happening.

Conservative? Oh Yeah!

For those who haven’t followed Carpenter’s career, there is a definite liberal bent, particularly as it relates to the issue of feminism. This came in large part from his producer Debra Hill, but Carpenter ran with it voluntarily. He’s also done some anti-Reagan work, some pro-environmental work and he’s done some bizarre smears against religious conservatives. So one would assume that his film about a multiracial gang arising in the ghettos of Los Angeles would tread heavily into liberalism and liberation theology. Interestingly, however, it doesn’t. Instead, it presents full-on conservatism. Observe...
The story involves a mixed-race gang of “youths” who have gotten their hands on automatic weapons and are now considered a menace. This gang arose in the ghetto. The standard liberal treatment for this is that the gang was formed because of a combination of white oppression and economic hopelessness. None of that is the case here, however. Instead, the only clue we get as to why the gang formed is that several of their leaders dress in Marxist garb similar in appearance to what Che Guevara wore. That’s highly unusual because (1) it fails to imply that the gang was forced to turn to crime by evil rich whites, and (2) it implies that Marxists are indeed dangerous. With this being the 1970s and Liberation Theology and “root causes” policing being so prevalent, this is a significant jump to the right.

What’s more, compare the gang to what is going on inside the station. Bishop is black and he too came from Anderson. Liberation Theology says that such people must be on the side of the revolution, only Anderson is presented as firmly pro-law and order. He is even shown to believe in heroism, another thing the left was trying to eliminate. What’s more, the police side is a multiracial group who mix freely, never judge each other on the basis of race, and let a black man lead the group. These are all things leftists tell us cannot exist in the real world.
Moreover, as a direct blow to the root causes argument, we are told clearly but indirectly that the reason Bishop is such a sterling character despite growing up in a ghetto is because his father instilled in him strong values including respect for his mother. Again, liberals routinely claim that minorities cannot overcome their root causes. Carpenter says the opposite here. Bishop even notes that “no one got me out of Anderson, I walked out on my own.” Again, self-help is an illusion in liberal circles.

Further, the gang appears to be leftists. Yet, they are interestingly shown to be vicious and without any noble principles. They kill blacks, as well as whites. They kill a little girl for no reason at all. Their first killing is an ice cream truck driver, i.e. a working man. At the police station they kill cop and crook indiscriminately even though liberals would tell us that the crooks are only locked up because the police are an occupying army used by the privileged elite to keep order.

Finally, Napoleon Wilson becomes a hero in this film, but there is no suggestion that his crimes should be forgiven just because he proves to be a good guy. Nor does he ever disclaim his own actions or their significance. In fact, he doesn’t even bother to explain them even as people ask: the message to that is that intent doesn’t matter, only the act matters. That’s highly conservative.

It’s interesting to me that a leftist director could create a film that is perfectly set up to be very liberal, but ends up being strongly conservative in values.



ScottDS said...

I haven't seen it yet. [dodges flying objects]

It had been on my radar since Shout! Factory gave it the deluxe treatment on Blu-Ray in the last year or so.

As far as politics, I think it simply proves something I said on BH many times (seems like ancient history)...

...many filmmakers are liberal but the best ones are honest** (i.e. the ones that won't twist a story to fit their politics and that applies to the other side, too)... can be difficult to judge someone's politics based on their work... now with Carpenter, sure there's a pattern, but it's not always that easy

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, This is another one you should see.

On his politics, his producer made a very big deal about being a feminist and sticking those ideas into the film. As for Carpenter himself, I am not aware of any similar statements, but the pattern of his work is definitely rather liberal over time. This one though, definitely is not a liberal movie.

AndrewPrice said...

BTW, There's a remake starring Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne which I've completely ignored. Everything this film does right, that one does wrong. Rather than having heroic likeable leads, you get deeply flawed anti-"heroes." Rather than being about this mystery event, the "gang" in that one is just corrupt cops. There's no humor, no clever dialog, nothing unexpected. It stinks.

Anonymous said...

Andrew; One of your best reviews ever! I haven't seen this one in a long time but from what I can remember everything you said was spot on. The woodenness of some of the actors "but" - some of the dialogue is cheesy "but" - the film does work because, as you said, the lack of polish coupled with the use of character actors instead of stars makes it seem real. Don't get me wrong, there are times when nothing satisfies the appetite except for slow motion shots of doves flying through windows while the protagonists draw their guns :) but that ain't always the case. Z
As far as the implausibility of the plot, it ain't all that farfetched. As you might remember, I'm a cop in Cincinnati. About a dozen miles north of Cincinnati there is an absolute toilet named Lincoln Heights. Back in 1992, on third shift one night the locals decided they'd had enough of the gendarmie and stormed the police station. They pelted it with molotov cocktails and fired at the windows. So it isn't completely beyond the pale. Another rhing that makes it work is that it's 1976. If memory serves, they had moved the radio equipment out as part of the closure of the station. The gang cut the phone lines and bam, isolation. Cell phones didn't exist. Thanks for a great review of a good movie.
And Scott,you're right. BigHollywood seems like a long time ago.

ScottDS said...

Anon -

Interesting that you mentioned a "lack of polish" as a good thing. I guess there are certain little scrappy movies we all like, sometimes in spite of the rough edges. If they were all bright and shiny, they'd lose something. (see: RoboCop remake)

Andrew -

I'm aware of the remake and I haven't seen that one either. It's a shame, since there are perfectly bad (or at least forgettable) movies out there that could conceivably be remade without a fuss.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks GypsyTyger! :D

I really like this movie a lot for the reasons mentioned. In many ways, the "flaws" make this movie feel more realistic and believable. I don't know if that was the intent or if that's just a lucky coincidence, but it really works.

And yeah I do love the artistic shots too - especially John Woo's stuff, but they really have no place in a more "raw" film like this.

I do recall that you're a cop in Cincinnati! :)

Interesting. I wasn't aware of that incident. I'm not sure I've heard of another police station being attacked. In any event, I do want to clarify that I definitely don't see the events in this film as impossible or so improbable that you don't accept them. They are actually very believable and that again helps the film.

What's more, all the individual actions in this film are believable. There are no wire fights or physically impossible stunts. It's all very believable.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Lack of polish can be a good thing if it adds authenticity. It does here. It's hard to say where you cross that line from cheap to authentic, but this film does it.

Yeah, there are many better candidates for a remake. The thing is, this film comes complete with an audience and a pedigree, so a remake was inevitable. But of course, the remake lost everything good about the original and just became another "good cop v. dirty cop" story.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Great review, Andrew!
This one is well worth watching. About the only thing .i thought was unbelievable was the multi-racial gang.
And a lot of film makers have used multi-racial gangs, I guess for diversity or something.

At any rate, I never saw one. In reality most gangs are full of racists, and never accept other races as members.

Other than that the film was realistic enough and Carpenter did a good job building the suspense.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Gypsie Tyger, thanks for your service. Being a cop is a very tough job!
I was only a reserve cop for a few years, in a small town, but there were plenty of domestic calls. Those were the worst, sometimes. Especially when drugs and/or alcohol was involved. People can get downright mean and nasty.

Kit said...

"I'm aware of the remake and I haven't seen that one either. It's a shame, since there are perfectly bad (or at least forgettable) movies out there that could conceivably be remade without a fuss."

I'm going to second or third that.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

I saw the remake and it is mediocre at best.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ben! This one is definitely worth seeing if for no other reason than to get a little piece of film history. Some film critics actually now call it the best action film of the 1970s, though that is a bit of a stretch.

On the multiracial gang, I actually bought it in this instance for one reason... I've always understood the underlying story to be that a bunch of different gangs have gotten together to try to overthrow the police. So while they are all this new gang, "Street Thunder" (an awful name), I see them as an amalgam of 4 different gangs -- one white, one black, one Asian, one Hispanic -- who have come together to fight this war.

Based on that, I don't see the multiracial stuff as a PC statement to create a rainbow gang and avoid making minorities look bad (as it is in other movies), I see it instead as a statement of menace that each of these different groups could team up.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, The real problem with the remake isn't that they did it... this film could be remade I guess, the problem is that they turned it into something completely different.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, It is mediocre at best. The hero is the generic flawed antihero who is forced to fight. The bad guy is the good guy. The cops are the bad guys. There are improbable characters and moments. And the whole thing just lacks those moments that made this film special.

There aren't even clever lines like:

"Do you understand me Wilson?"
"You mumble a bit, but I got the gist of it." LOL!

"He don't stand so well anymore."

"You run this station like chicken night in Turkey." Huh? LOL!

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

I had forgotten all about that. Thanks for reminding me. Yeah that makes sense now.

The remake was full of bad lines. I didn't get the chicken night in Turkey thing either, LOL!
Might've been better to say to say pork night in Turkey.

Anonymous said...

I've never seen the original, I'd heard about it but never run across the VHS while I was growing up. I watched the remake which was uninspiring to say the least and I'm not surprised that they screwed the job up like they tend to do for most modern remakes.

I will have to keep an eye out for the original.


AndrewPrice said...

Ben, I suspect that was an improvised line someone thought was funny and they just kept it.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, It's worth seeing. As I say, at times it feel cheap and awkward, but ultimately it's really quite good. It works, even though it seems like it shouldn't.

The remake is uninspired to say the least.

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