A scraggly group of ordinary people are thrown into a room and forced to work together. Outside that room, bloodthirsty forces are massing, looking for any opportunity to break in and kill whoever’s inside. The people in the room might not know each other and might not like each other. They might disagree over whether to hole up in the room or to make a break for it. They absolutely will not all survive. But if they’re brave and inventive and quick thinking enough, a few of them might live to see the morning.
That’s a classic movie setup, especially for low-budget films, situations where the producers can only afford one set or location. It extends outside the world of action movies; the original Dawn Of The Dead might be the best siege movie ever made. And the scenario still works now; the new punks-fighting-skinheads indie thriller Green Room is easily the best new movie I’ve seen in 2016. For a lot of these movies, there’s a clear model at work: John Carpenter’s 1976 film Assault On Precinct 13, a low-budget landmark and the first great work from one of the best action-movie directors ever to do it.
Carpenter had his own precedents when he made Assault. The movie is his take on the classic Howard Hawks/John Wayne Western Rio Bravo, and George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, from a few years earlier, is another clear influence. Carpenter only had one movie under his belt, the 1974 sci-fi stoner comedy Dark Star. He did everything on Assault: writing, directing, editing, and putting together the eerie electronic score.
That score might be the single most enduring thing about Assault. Carpenter spent three days on it, putting it together on primitive tube synthesizers. He only came up with a few pieces of music, using them over and over throughout the movie. But their tense minimalism helped set the table for people like Tangerine Dream, Giorgio Moroder, and Goblin to change the way movies sounded. These days, Carpenter is effectively retired from filmmaking, but he’s still making ominous instrumental synth-rock, and the echoes of his icy DIY scores reverberate every time a horror director underlines a creepy moment with a blaring keyboard drone.
That main theme is an utterly badass piece of music, and it works beautifully within the context of the movie because it gives a sense of knife-edge unreality to what we’re watching. Assault was something rare at the time: An action movie that didn’t even make the slightest nod toward realism. Its version of Los Angeles was a burned-out wasteland, a place street gangs wander around and kill for fun. And Carpenter had a weird but effective idea: The movie’s gang-member villains never talk. They lay waste to an isolated police station, killing almost everyone inside and dying in hordes. And the only time they communicate with the outside world is when they symbolically, and silently, declare war, leaving a banner on the station stairs. When they get shot or beaten or kicked in the nuts, they’ll only let out, at most, a muted grunt.
The actual action in Assault is good, especially by low-budget ’70s standards. The fights are sudden and quick and impactful, and Carpenter finds ways to work around his tiny budget, much of which probably went toward blanks and bullet squibs. But the action scenes are less important to the movie than its sense of atmosphere, especially in the way Carpenter builds up his silent, stealthy antagonists.
Unruly young folk were probably the main villains of ’70s action movies. And where they became anonymous gibbering lunatics in movies like Dirty Harry and Death Wish, they were pure abstractions in Assault. They don’t have motivations or inner lives or internal debates. They’re forces of pure destruction. Early in the movie, one of them, without even thinking about it, shoots an adorable little pigtailed girl in the face. The scene almost got the movie hit with an X rating; Carpenter says that he lied to the MPAA, telling them he’d remove the scene and then never following through. It’s still a shocking scene today, especially with Carpenter methodically building the tension in the moments before.
But I think Assault has more going on than a movie like Death Wish. The only time we hear the members of the awesomely named Street Thunder gang talking is in the opening scene, when police massacre a group of them. In that scene, the police are the abstractions—faceless voices, hands holding guns and emerging through smoke. And from the next scene on, the gang kids are pure monsters. This could just be a cool effect of Carpenter’s devising, or it could be a subtle point about the way we dehumanize our enemies.
This is also a movie with two heroes: a black policeman and a white death row inmate. Thanks to some unlikely plot turns, they, and a few others, are holed up in an about-to-close police station, with no power and no phones. The movie might treat the gang members like shadowy wraiths, but they’re also smart enough to use silencers, making it way less likely that anyone will show up to check on the station. (The silencers are another nice touch; they make everything creepier.) The movie only barely comments on the race of the cop, Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker). Other than an early moment when Bishop remembers getting out of the same slum where the movie takes place, and some subtle disrespect from commanding officers, nobody mentions it.
Bishop is a great character, calm and levelheaded, smart enough to know when it’s time to give his prisoners guns. But he’s got nothing on the other hero, death row inmate Napoleon Wilson. Carpenter literally cast his next-door neighbor Darwin Joston as Wilson, and he gave him all the best lines: “I was born out of time,” “You got something to do with death.” Joston has a great leathery, laconic presence, and he really seems to know how to handle himself in an absurd situation, cracking mordant jokes the whole time. With these two, though maybe not with some of the more minor characters, Assault does the most important thing a siege movie can do. It gives us characters worth caring about, characters we want to see survive.
Right after Assault, Carpenter went immediately into making Halloween, which plenty of people still regard as his masterpiece. (They’re wrong. It’s The Thing.) With Halloween, Carpenter used the same sort of silent, mysterious villain he’d used in Assault—the only real difference being that this time, it’s one guy, and he’s an unstoppable superhuman killing machine. In the process, Carpenter helped to create the ’80s action-flick slasher, which means Assault On Precinct 13 is, in a roundabout way, responsible for the existence of Jason Voorhees.
But other than Carpenter, nobody really got famous because of Assault. The only actors you might recognize are the hysterical receptionist Nancy Loomis, who had a bigger role in Halloween, and Tony Burton, who played Duke in the first six Rocky movies. Stoker at least carved out a decent genre-movie character-actor career, before and after Assault. Joston, meanwhile, acted in Eraserhead and in Carpenter’s The Fog, but by the mid-’80s, he was driving trucks on movie sets. He died in 1998. It’s too bad. Based on what he showed in Assault, he could’ve been a real presence in action movies. But then, he sort of is. Whatever the people involved might have gone on to do, Assault On Precinct 13 still lingers in movies, action and otherwise. It always will.
Other noteworthy 1976 action movies: If 1975’s runner-up was Three Days Of The Condor, then 1976’s honors have to go to Marathon Man. Like Condor, Marathon Man was more of a paranoid ’70s conspiracy thriller than an action movie, but it also helped push forward the action-movie trope of the everyman who has to tough his way out of a horrific situation. And Marathon Man has some great action scenes in it, too, like the fight between Roy Scheider and the assassin with the piano wire, as well as an all-time great movie villain.
Another great movie from the same year: Master Of The Flying Guillotine, Chinese Boxer auteur Jimmy Wang Yu’s weirder-than-fuck heightened-reality death-tournament movie. This was a movie where all the fighters had their own particular superpowers, often depicted through the magic of crude special effects. (Shout out to the yogi with the stretchy arms.) This was also the height of the Shaw Brothers dynasty, which means it was a year for classic kung fu movies like Executioners From Shaolin and Dirty Ho. And while Hand Of Death isn’t exactly a classic on its own merits, it did team young star Jackie Chan up with young director John Woo. The two would take separate paths, but they’d both have a huge impact on action movies. We’ll hear from both again in this column.
And while it’s not that well-remembered, I need to give a shout-out to The Enforcer, the third Dirty Harry movie. It’s a pretty great movie! And while it didn’t exactly break new ground, it did prove something that Bond fans already knew: Action-movie franchises could be plenty of fun, even as they turned into total formulas.
Next time: The trauma of the Vietnam War comes home in the queasy, gripping, fucked-up revenge flick Rolling Thunder.