What does it say about me that as a lover of cinema, I still have never seen a film by Godard, Fellini, or Bergman? Or that I haven't seen Gone with the Wind or The Ten Commandments? I've never seen a film by William Wyler and the only John Ford film I have seen is Stagecoach. All of these statements are sad but true. But what is even sadder is that, given the choice between watching one of these movies or watching an early, lesser film by John Carpenter, my goddamn geek instinct will always make me choose Carpenter.
Lesser isn't quite the word. In the 90's, Carpenter's work got far lesser than his second film, 1976's Assault on Precinct 13, could ever be considered. But when you compare Assault on Precinct 13 to the Carpenter craziness that was to come in the next decade; Halloween, The Thing, Big Trouble In Little China (my favorite), or even the cornball fun of They Live!, it's surely the work of a director who was just starting to hit his stride.
Assault on Precinct 13 is set in Anderson, a slum of Los Angeles, where a street gang runs rampant, armed with a supply of automatic weapons. When a guy kills one of their members in retaliation for his little girl's murder, they chase him to the local police station, in the process of shutting down. The few remaining officers there must then team up with the convicts and defend their fortress from a seemingly endless onslaught of LA gangbangers.
The movie is a lot of fun once it gets started. Sort of a modern western mixed with a zombie movie, but the zombies aren't dead. The problem is, it takes a really long time to get started, 45 minutes before all the chess pieces are in place. Come on now, John Carpenter, you've got to make your way through act 1 as fast as you can.
The acting isn't exactly top notch for the most part, but the two leads are pretty enjoyable, especially Austin Stoker as Ethan Bishop, the heroic cop. Surely taking inspiration from Night of the Living Dead, Carpenter makes his hero a black man without ever drawing attention to that fact, something that is rare even now, but was practically unheard of in 1976. Darwin Joston plays the roguish Napoleon Wilson, the badass crook with a heart of gold. He spends much of the movie asking for a smoke and not telling people why he's called Napoleon.
The gang is portrayed as a faceless force of evil rather than individual people, almost supernatural. They just keep on coming, pressing down on the Precinct, and seemingly never running out of ammo and men. They've cut the power and phone lines, and after every attack, they clean up all the bodies and hide, so nobody will notice their presence. I doubt that would really work, but you buy it in the movie.
I enjoyed Assault on Precinct 13 for what it was. It would play well with The Warriors, another similar (and superior) cult movie from the same time period that I only saw recently. Maybe next up I will finally watch a film by Godard, Fellini, or Bergman. On second thought, I have the rest of my life to watch those. I'll probably just watch Buckaroo Banzai again.