Film Review – Assault on Precinct 13 (Original)

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When I was in middle school, I saw a movie called Big Trouble in Little China, by a directer I’d never heard of before by the name of John Carpenter. This movie kind of opened up my mind a bit. I’d seen martial arts films, before, stuff along the lines of old Bruce Lee films, as well as some of Jackie Chan’s movies, but I’d never seen Wuxia before. Seeing martial arts done in a modern setting, combined with the magic and mysticism that was used in Wuxia films basically blew my mind. That movie got me into watching a lot of martial arts film (though I have difficulty watching some of the films I probably wouldn’t have had problems with before – I couldn’t even get started with High Risk/Meltdown, due to the bad plot and the blatant cheap shots at Jackie Chan – which I found in poor taste).

Anyway, the film also got me interested in seeing some of John Carpenter’s other films, and I later would seek out The Thing, which was my first HD-DVD purchase (yeah, I backed the wrong side in the format war), and Escape From New York, as well as Halloween. I would later see the remake of Assault on Precinct 13, which I checked out from the Library and enjoyed (though it was critically panned), but the library didn’t have the original, and I wanted to seek it out and see it for myself.

Well, we come to now. I am now an adult with my own source of income, a Netflix account, and PS3. I finally rented John Carpenter’s first traditionally made motion picture (he’d previously made the science fiction film Dark Star, which was his true first film, but it wasn’t made in the traditional fashion – with the film being made in fits and starts over several years as money permitted), and the question is now, how is it for a true first film? No major spoilers this time around, just one for a quick, plot insignificant one-off gag.The Premise:

The old station for LAPD’s precinct 13 is being shut down, and a young, rookie police lieutenant finds his first night on the job puts him in charge of the station’s last night. Over the course of the evening, the lieutenant will find himself interacting with many interesting characters, including a distraught father and a pair of prisoners being transported to basically, death row. Oh, and several hundred heavily armed gang members, up in arms after some of their own were gunned down the day before, out to murder them all.

The Good:

John Carpenter, like Robert Rodriguez, is excellent at getting a lot out of a little. About 3/4th of this movie is spent on one, maybe 2 sets, plus a few exterior shots at two locations. Aside from that, there are a handful of other shots at other locations but in general the meat of the movie takes place in about 2 sets – but the film never feels like a 1-room/3-room film. It feels much bigger, partly because of the establishing shots earlier on, but also because Rodriguez keeps the pacing up and the action up.

The Bad:

Aside from locking a loaded shotgun into a crate being bad firearms safety, it also appears to have only been done to set up tension around trying to force lock. That’s fine and all… well, no it’s not. It’s a fairly stupid, illogical move, and I can’t see any justification for it at all. The precinct also apparently doesn’t have any radios inside the building either, which is extremely illogical as well. If they’re packed up, well, that’s something that could be solved by 2 ultra-short lines of dialog.

The Ugly:

Well, I presume we all remember the hullabaloo around Resident Evil 5, and the allegations of racism around the game, with Capcom saying that they had no racist intent, and the critics determining that while the game is not deliberatly racist, the game did have racially loaded imagry, and so on. Well, Assault on Precinct 13 has the same problem. Not that the imagery is racist (in fact the gangs are universally multi-ethnic, in part because John Carpenter was grabbing whatever extras he could find), but it is racially loaded – complete with the gangs “marking” Precinct 13 with a thrown jar full of blood and a banner, written in blood, saying “cholo” – which in the film means “crazy-ass-motherfuckers-who-are-even-more-ruthless-than-Western-Movie-Indians”, but in real life means people of mixed ethnicity, specifically, someone with one hispanic parent and the other parent being of a different ethnicity (originally Native American), and about half to 3/4ths of the dialog the gang members get is Hispanic. The fact that the film is set in South Central LA doesn’t help. Again, the imagry isn’t overtly racist, just racially loaded, just enough that I had problems pushing that fact out of my mind.

The Verdict:

With the exception of the racially loaded imagry, the film’s actually aged pretty well, and the writers and directors of the remake kind of recognized this, in that while they changed the particulars of the plot, they kept a lot of the film’s beats intact, because they just work. Ultimately, this is a good film, and an excellent example of John Carpenter’s craft, and I reccomend giving it a watch.