Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter / U.S., 1976):

John Carpenter may imagine himself a genre artisan born a generation too late, yet his films can't help being colored by the racial, sexual and political tensions of his turbulent times. Nothing illustrates his seemingly schizoid richness better than his lean update of personal fave Rio Bravo -- a Western in modern urban drag, unapologetically old-school in its straightforward drive, though with the serenity of Howard Hawks' classic cracked under the weight of Vietnam-era anxieties. Thus, the narrative kicks off with the beautiful horizontal lines of L.A. disrupted by the police slaughtering members of a gang of street toughs, whose multiracial leaders, Che beret in place, are then seen ceremoniously dipping blood into a bowl before taking off for vengeance. Against the volatile ghetto topography is Austin Stoker's rock-solid cop, whose babysitting job at the ready-to-close Precinct 13 becomes a test in heroism when in stumbles the gang's target, a schmo gone catatonic after offing a member to avenge his daughter. Off go the lights and the phones, and Stoker and the station's crew (including deadpan policewoman Laurie Zimmer and prisoner Darwin Joston) have to fend off the outside invaders who, by now, have morphed into a rolling, dehumanized force leaking through the venetian blinds. For all the project's B-movie mantle, Carpenter's Panavision formalism, with emphasis on interacting space caught in airtight middle-distances, displays a crystalline rigor to shame pricier, more "respectable" films -- a torrential of abstracting, oddly lyrical effects wrung out of people throwing guns to one other, a bullet sailing through a pigtailed moppet's vanilla ice cream cone and into her chest, a police station cut to ribbons during a noiseless bulletfest. Less remake than reconsideration of Rio Bravo's themes (and a masterpiece on its own right), the film taps into old Hollywood imagery while raising questions of its place and validity in the midst of politically shifting times: When Zimmer's smashing low-budget Bacall places a cigarette in Joston's laconic lips and lights a match in the same gesture, it is a moment of idealized iconography right out of Only Angels Have Wings, yet complicated (and enriched) by the paradoxical subversion of Carpenter's art. With Tony Burton, Nancy Loomis, Martin West, and Charles Chypher.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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