Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 09 July 2004
Source Jef Films International VHS
As with most every John Carpenter film, Assault on Precinct 13 is complemented with a simplistic, minimalist score — it is his signature, exampled most famously by his three-note staccato for Halloween. Keep in mind that Carpenter is secondly a filmmaker, pursuing the profession after earning a degree in music. Directors customarily claim secondary credits, and Carpenter’s persists to be one of the more unique in “Director-Composer.”
For Carpenter, this has become a deteriorative element. His tactic in scoring is appropriate to suspense or horror and is attuned to the ’70s, favoring synthesizers and bass guitars. As with these instruments, Carpenter’s scoring has become an artifact of past decades. Similarly dated are his films: Halloween, for one, is a cinematic grandfather, and is disserved by the prolifically derivative genre it has inspired.
In keeping with this note of influence, Assault on Precinct 13 inherits the interest in procedural crime and the careful racial (and sexual) acknowledgement characteristic to the ’70s. Evidencing this statement are solid, helmet-like Afros, the fetishistic cocking of guns, and crosshairs that land on increasingly eligible victims. Assault on Precinct 13 is derived from the decade’s popular crime genre, fulfilling its obligations exemplarily; it is largely composed of borrowed pieces, each polished and radiant. Even the number 13 of the title is a carefully considered and contrived detail.
The film is captioned with bold times and places, lending the film a timeline and specificity that forward tension and urgency (this is another of Carpenter’s thefts from Psycho). Action in an afternoon Los Angeles suburb is intercut between initially disassociated characters: convicts en route to prison, a crime gang’s spree of killing, a new police officer’s first shift, and a police precinct in the process of relocation. It is an exceptionally faceted conflict, involving, only more abstractly, race, sex, and fallibly relative law. This mixture is funneled into a final siege at the precinct, becoming as meticulously dramatic as the crucial final moves in a game of chess.
The crime gang excepted (which is anonymous and expendable), no primary character in the film embodies his stereotype. The criminals exhibit trust and selflessness, the new policeman (the survivors’ hierarchal authority) is black, and the women are composed, always clothed, and never scream. It is responsible, dynamic characterization. Most every character is designed to contest traditional sexual and racial stereotyping. This ideology (or lack of stereotyping) dictates to some extent the film’s outcome: the survivors are reduced to an essential representation of the sexes, races, and opposing sides of law. (This racial and sexual acknowledgement also employed in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.) Success in their desire to live, in result, necessitates trust and collaboration between the party members, each of whom embodies traditionally segregated characterizations in ’70s film. As the body count escalates, notice the policeman’s face as it fills simultaneously with fear, desperation, and concern as he hands a loaded rifle to one of the convicts.
The suspense of this film relents only at the final minutes, once the smoke of gunfire clears to reveal the survivors without a bullet of ammunition between them. Survival is meaningless without a viewer’s sympathy — in Carpenter’s hands the latter trait is a transcendent element. Carpenter’s survivors are durable, and, as with those in this film, are not characterized by strength and determination inasmuch as they are by vulnerability and fear.
John Carpenter’s career would later span horror and effects-driven science fiction. Assault on Precinct 13 finds him at his nascent best.