The early days of John Carpenter’s career are sort of like the warm-ups to a great athletic feat: Each time he tried to leap his way into Hollywood, his attempt was more impressive until he finally achieved spectacular success. First came Dark Star (1974), a student film expanded to feature length, and the one that finally did the trick was Halloween (1978). But in between, Carpenter earned considerable acclaim, especially in Europe, for a nasty piece of work titled Assault on Precinct 13. An unabashed riff on the Howard Hawks classic Rio Bravo (1959), Assault is a deceptively simple piece about urban crazies laying siege to a police station the night it’s set to be decommissioned. Ostensibly motivated by revenge, the killers really represent a kind of all-encompassing nihilistic dread, closing in on a handful of virtuous characters as inexorably as the night itself. While that might seem like heady metaphorical stuff for a low-budget thriller, much of what makes Carpenter so interesting is his ability to infuse films with genuine menace instead of stock fright-show tropes. Assault also demonstrated that in his own perverse way, Carpenter’s a damn funny son of a bitch, because the picture is filled with humor so black it’s almost shocking. And then there are the unequivocally shocking moments, like the notorious ice-cream cone scene. (You’ll know it when you see it, believe me.) Although the picture's characters are mostly ciphers, Assault includes a prototype for the sort of anarchistic loners that permeated later Carpenter films, because tough-talking convict Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) is like a rough draft for Snake Plissken, the tough-talking convict Kurt Russell played in Escape from New York (1981). Napoleon’s who-gives-a-fuck swagger is potent, his interplay with the unfortunate cop in charge of the police station is entertaining, and he gets some of the movie’s best lines (“Can’t argue with a confident man”). As did many of Carpenter’s early pictures, Assault features a minimalistic, moody score by the director himself, using a lonely electric piano and skittering synth sounds to envelop the whole story in an ominous cloud.
Assault on Precinct 13: GROOVY