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Saturday, 15 March 2014

Assault on Precinct 13: The Original Version

Just caught most of the original Assault on Precinct 13 on Netflix (I say "mostly" because less than 5 minutes from the end Netflix decided to stop working; thanks a lot, lack of net neutrality in America). It's not usually billed as a horror movie, but it's just as claustrophobic and full of creeping dread, and with the scenes of the gang members converging on the precinct or climbing in through the windows, it might as well be a zombie flick.

I guess that's John Carpenter's genius, though - it's present in Halloween, the Thing, Escape from New York... pretty much everything I've seen of his. If his characters aren't skulking around a post-apocalyptic landscape, then they're barricading the windows. And he scored Assault, just as he did with Halloween and the others, so it retains even more of his atmosphere, although the music isn't as distinctive as Halloween.

But the other thing that struck me was how raw it all was. Ignoring for a second that the inciting incident (SPOILERS, I guess) is some guy shooting a little girl in the chest, the acting and cinematography and especially the sound are like nothing you'd see in theaters today.

I say "especially" the sound, because most of the time the actors' voices sound like they're actually in the rooms where the action takes place. They echo a little bit, or are slightly drowned out by engine noise (for instance, when they're on a bus at the start), and there's a constant muted roar from LA's traffic - a sound that I recognize immediately having grown up in the Bay Area.

But let's get back to that shooting - "holy crap" was pretty much the sum of my reaction. I struggle to think of a movie that would show you that - a little girl running up to an ice cream truck, only to be gunned down in cold blood by a gang member, who utters no lines in his short time on screen and is soon dispatched by the girl's father.

Another thing that shows Assault is of its time is the fact that it dares to have a black lead. I haven't seen the remake, but during one of Netflix's numerous buffering breaks, I went on Wikipedia to see who played whom in the version with Ethan Hawke and Lawrence Fishburne. Interestingly, the role of the heroic cop and the criminal are completely reversed, in racial terms - which I find a little weird.

We're pretty self-congratulatory about how much less racist and homophobic and misogynist we are than our forebears were in the 1970s, but we don't have movies about black cops as lead characters anymore? I guess in 1976 it was kind of shocking, just like Charlton Heston's interracial romance in The Omega Man, but looking at it now it doesn't seem like we've progressed that much.

I won't deny it's a flawed movie, of course. The bad guys don't seem to have any motives, and they certainly don't have a lot of lines; the only thing that saves it from being creepily racist (apart from the black lead, of course) is the fact, mentioned in the film, that they're "unusually multiracial". Yep, there are even Asians in the gang! And not a karate kick to be seen from them, which is also pretty far ahead of its time, if you think about it. The acting, in places, is also pretty spotty, and I kept looking up at the top of the screen to see if the boom mike ever entered the shot.

But I soon stopped, because the story rumbled along at a pretty good pace - I was so sucked in, in fact, that I paused at one point to take a break and maybe make myself a drink, but was surprised to see that there were less than 15 minutes left. How's that for engaging the viewer?

I guess it's a cliche to say that they don't make movies like that anymore, but it's true. Assault seemed to break all of the conventions of modern scriptwriting I've read lately, from not putting the inciting incident in the first ten minutes, to not showing what kind of person the hero is by having him save a cat or something in the first scene. You certainly wouldn't see something like that shooting of the little girl, I feel - not unless it was a serious look at violence in our society (read: Oscar bait).

Well, it's late and this seems to be drifting into curmudgeonly territory, so I'll sign off and go back to trying to catch the last two or three minutes. And I suppose I'll have to catch the remake at some point, if for no other reason than to see what they've done to it.