Friday, December 18, 2009

Assault on Precinct 13

I have already named the most annoying director (Zack Snyder) and the most interesting director (Werner Herzog). Who is the most badass director? That would have to be John Carpenter. While I've seen a mere three of his films - Escape from New York, the Thing, and now Assault on Precinct 13 - I have come to the conclusion that nobody can make a more consistently badass movie.

The trouble with neatly summarizing the plot of this film is that anything but the most basic description of the story undermines what makes it great. Since the main event is right there in the title - technically it's Precinct 9, Division 13, but it does get very assaulted - the movie plays on you knowing that, at some point in the next 90 minutes, some serious crap is going down. Since you don't know exactly what's going to happen, it slowly builds and introduces characters, without giving any indication of how they will play into the overall film. There's a gang of hard thugs that stab themselves, the black Andy Griffith (Austin Stoker), a father (Martin West) and daughter (Kim Richards), a bus with death row prisoners - one of whom is treated as more dangerous than the others (Darwin Johnson), one who is more energetic (Tony Burton) and the guy who is watching them (Charles Cyphers) - and the people in the police station itself, including the badass Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and the annoying Julie (Nancy Kyes). Eventually, they all converge on the mostly abandoned Precinct 9, District 13, which is open for one final night.

Until the actual assault happen, the film is happy to just bide its time. It knows that you know something is going to happen, so it updates the time and keeps track of the characters, sometimes underlining moments with a badass synth score which would feel very at home on the Genesis, if the Genesis wasn't from the future. It toys with the audience, as it knows exactly what you expect. When things start to happen, it's a shock just because you don't expect them to happen that way.

The shootout itself keeps that intensity by restricting the perspective to the protagonists. You feel as though you are standing with them in the mostly abandoned police station. While you have a bit more insight onto the reasons for the attack, the methods and exact approach the villains are going to take remains a mystery. The one thing that you can tell for certain is that bad things are going to happen, just like the characters.

Of course, in all this tension we don't really learn much about the characters. Unlike movies where people decide to share their entire backstory in intense shootouts, here we only learn how characters handle pressure. Some are better than others - Julie is not very good, for example - and we see characters who shouldn't be friends bonding over gunplay and a shared threat. We even grow fond of the characters because we feel as though we're in the same situation. After the smoke clears - quite literally - we move on our way.

I can see someone disliking the unresolved ending, and I can see some people wishing for more than crash boom bang against some mostly ill defined - though clearly evil - characters. That's fine, but I like that Precinct 13 ignores all the regular trappings of an action film, and focuses instead on what people really want. Action and tension, everything else pared to the bone. That's how you do it if you're a badass. No wonder it was made by the most badass director.

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