By Sean Patrick Leydon
The Lone Ranger and Tonto are surrounded by a group of natives.
The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says, “Indians. Indians all around! Well, Tonto, ol’ Kimosavee, it looks like we’re finished.”
Tonto replies: “What you mean … ‘We?’”
– Mad Magazine No. 38 (1958)
Modern action films are much more predictable than their predecessors. With many action movies containing similar pacing and messages, the genre has become thoroughly homogenized. What makes Saving Private Ryan feel similar to Mission Impossible or other action films? They bombard the senses with big, flashy action sequences, and they pull at many of the same heartstrings: family, honor, respect, martial prowess, patriotism, etc.
Today, we’re taking a look at John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. It covers a lot of genres: cop flick, drama, thriller, cult. These days, we’d call it action, but now, that implies top-tier CGI budgets and the slickest editing known to man. Assault is different. Its moments of violence are more sickening and human. The feeling of the film is akin to Crash being bludgeoned over the head with Night of the Living Dead – a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of gang violence and racial tension.
There’s a trend in recent action films to ignore a character's ethnicity until it can become the subject of a shallow joke. I see this often when action films have a gang of heroes from racially diverse backgrounds, as in the remake of The Italian Job when Mark Wahlberg introduces his crew. We meet a crew of stylin’ white men with cool specialties and one black guy who likes to blow stuff up. It’s easy to pick on a flashy action movie, but do you remember that one time in Full Metal Jacket? When the troops are negotiating with a prostitute and the black soldier becomes the butt of the “too beaucoup” joke? Amid the horror of war and mounds of existential searching, Kubrick manages to find room for a well-hung black man joke.
There is a different atmosphere in Assault. The actors are different shades, but race is addressed in more serious and realistic ways. As Ethan, a black lieutenant, familiarizes himself with the police station he just took command of, the white receptionist Leigh asks him if he would like coffee. As Ethan accepts her offer, she asks, “Black?” to which he responds with a smile and says, “For over 30 years.” The joke falls on its ass with her. There’s no ribaldry. The conversation just continues as they get to know each other.
Another aspect that sets Assault apart is a sense of equality between the law and the outlaw. Criminals and police are both capable of bumbling stupidity or impressive insight into the real world, and this holds true in Carpenter’s vision. This pleases me to no end. The relentless othering of antagonists in film grosses me out. The distillation of conflict into a Smart Good Guy-Dumb Bad Guy binary is neither inclusive of what we observe in life nor conducive to good storytelling. Still, this staid form of conflict has become the expectation of the action genre.
The film opens with a negative depiction of police. As the film progresses, we meet characters we like and dislike on either side of the law. Conflicts blossom among many characters and groups, and we encounter the kind of classic inter-group conflict that arises in every zombie siege flick.
On a filmmaking level, parts of the film read as both more brutal and quainter than other similar films. Some of this is due to the inventiveness of Carpenter, while some of it is due to the era in which it was made. Of the many subtle aspects of Assault that set it apart from the action genre, my favorite is the treatment death receives. When characters die in action movies, we are accustomed to melodrama: “Tell my wife thing X,” or pulling the pin on the grenade, whatever. There’s a brief second life in which dying characters set things right in the world. In Assault, when you die, your ruined body falls to the ground – because you are dead, and that is what dead people do.
|Mad Magazine No. 38 (1958); drawing by E. Nelson Bridwell|
We’re familiar with rhythm in action films as simple as: The terrorists did X, so the commandos must complete Y. The sense of foreboding that Assault manages is largely due to the mysterious motivations of its silent antagonists. The result is that the film feels like less of a gimme and more layered with dread than other films. The violence depicted in Assault is random and chaotic. In action films, the main draw is the risk of death and how our hero overcomes it, but the hero is always aware of the source of the danger.
In Assault, characters die in the middle of mundane chores, unaware of the risks they were running being in an action film. Some of the tensest action occurs when Leigh needs to free prisoners so they can help fight off invading gang members. The pacing and editing do no let up. Everything needs to happen at exactly the right time, or our heroes die. The sequence brings together all of the film’s major themes – race, the threat of violence, the commonalities between cops and criminals – and the ultimate message is interesting. Teamwork is important. At one point, Leigh turns to Wells, a prisoner she has freed who is tempted to make a run for it. She says: “No sides to it. We’re all together.” A far cry indeed from “What you mean … ‘We?’”
Sean Patrick Leydon is a photographer, artist, and contributor to Last Cinema Standing. You can check out more of his work at nonotthought.blogspot.com.