“Rio Bravo” via a gristly a 1970s crime thriller.
There is a moment more than halfway through this film, when the beleaguered survivors inside an understaffed police station are besieged by seemingly endless waves of a progressive multicultural youth gang, which exemplifies what is great about “Assault on Precinct 13.” The sequence is a cacophony of broken glass, bullets, and dead bodies, as the motley crew of police, administrators, and convicts desperately try to fend off their attackers, who at times almost leap into their line of fire. Suddenly, the invasion stops. The bodies disappear. This sudden quiet and stillness becomes deafening and oppressive, which more frightening than the siege itself. The film is a gnarly mixture of frenetic, grimy, chaotic action and stunning moments of anticipatory, dread-building ambiance.
Like most successful action films, “Assault” strips its narrative of everything but the bare essentials, focusing instead on mood and visceral thrills. Essentially “Rio Bravo” placed in the decaying urban sprawl of 1976 Los Angeles, several people find themselves held-up in a nearly-defunct police precinct by a nebulous and expansive gang of hell-raisers called “Street Thunder” that are intent on murdering them all. Ostensibly the attack is retribution for the deaths of six of their brethren that were killed the previous night while robbing a shipment of automatic weapons, but their motivations are more amorphous and abstract than simple revenge. Their bizarre tactics suggestion something more symbolic.
“Assault” doesn’t waste much time on character study either. There is just enough screen-time invested in this rag-tag assortment of characters to give them basic definition and personality, without wasting it on frivolous backstory and nuance. There is the newly-promoted police lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) who has been given the task of overseeing the final night of a soon-to-be-closed police precinct in the middle of a Los Angeles ghetto, a couple of secretaries played by Nancy Loomis and Laurie Zimmer, a prison warden named Starker (Charles Cyphers) transporting prisoners to a state correctional facility but who is forced to make an emergency pit stop when one of his charges gets sick, prisoner Wells (Tony Burton) and Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Josten,) and a man named Lawson who directs Street Thunder’s attention towards the precinct when he enters the building after killing one of their own members, which was itself a retaliatory killing on behalf of his daughter.
These are characters almost exclusively defined by their situation, because nothing creates tight emotional bonds like bullets being shot at you, but that doesn’t make the performances any less compelling. In particular, despite the fact that ones a cop and the other is a convicted murderer, the brilliantly named Bishop andNapoleon become the best of buddies and carry the film with their love of sardonic humor and mutual respect for one another. Collectively they are mystified by the strange behavior of the Street Thunder gang, which seems to have an infinite supply of members and supernatural abilities. When they aren’t attacking in droves like a zombie hoard, a thick ominous cloud of mystery and portentousness lingers in the air. There is probably a compelling metaphor to be had from this metaphysical take on a gang problem(perhaps representing the insipid and incessant nature of the gang situation in L.A.) but for the purposes of this film, it is very effective.
“Assault” is John Carpenter’s second film as director, and at times it feels like it. The film is rough, raw, and unpolished, but I mean that in the best way possible. When ice cream truck drivers and little girls are getting shot in broad daylight by a gang that seems to have thousands of member, it isn’t the kind of film which should have airtight direction. This is a nasty, pulpy, 1970s action at its gritty finest.