Assault on Precinct 13 (Region 1 edition)

Starring: Darwin Joston, Austin Stoker, Laurie Zimmer and Nancy Loomis Image Entertainment
RRP $19.99

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South Central LA. A local gang declares war on the police after some of its members are ambushed. Their attacks culminate in them laying siege to an isolated police station that is about to close. The handful of officers and criminals inside soon realise that they are in a fight to the death. A late 1970s update of Howard Hawks' western,
Rio Bravo...

Spring 1978. London listings rag Time Out devotes a front cover to two young directors who, it claims, are set to become the kings of Hollywood. One is Steven Spielberg, whose Close Encounters of the Third Kind is just about to hit British theatres. But the other is not Star Wars' George Lucas. It is John Carpenter. The magazine's critics base their choice on his second feature, Assault on Precinct 13.

Given Carpenter's recent output, it's easy now to mock. Ghosts of Mars, Vampires, Escape From LA and Village of the Damned is a pretty horrible sequence. But up until the late 1980s/early 1990s, it is fair to say that the two cover-boys did represent poles in mainstream genre filmmaking, and particularly in fantasy and science-fiction.

While Spielberg cooked up blockbusters within the Hollywood system, Carpenter was the smart outsider, making the most successful independent film of its time, Halloween. And in Summer 1983, the two men came up with radically different takes on the alien invader: Spielberg gave us the benevolent ET. Carpenter had other ideas. The Thing remains one of the bleakest, nastiest and thoroughly entertaining splatterfests ever made. Much of the contrast was already there in those old 78s.

CE3K was indeed, with the preceding year's Star Wars, one of the precursors of today's Hollywood: a big-budget, skilfully mounted and visually spectacular confection with pretensions to a 'philosophy' but actually the softest and dumbest of centres. Assault was something else. Keeping with the mood of the times, you could even have seen it as an emerging punk band that wanted nothing to do with any Fleetwood Mac-like dinosaurs.

Assault had been made for pennies, slyly parodied any notion of a philosophy, and looked defiantly gritty. Its characters had little time for their inner selves or any form of emotional posturing. They were taciturn men and women of action, contemporary versions of the toughies who inhabited Howard Hawks' westerns, that director being Carpenter's acknowledged main influence. This 'garage' movie did not give a shit - and it said that sometimes we are very alone indeed.

What did link Carpenter and Spielberg was their understanding of the language of cinema. They stood out as the very best in their profession at composing a frame, editing an action sequence (a role where Carpenter sometimes, as in Assault, doubled up) and pulling off a camera move that could make you gasp at both its audacity and its appropriateness. It's just that 25 years on, well, Fleetwood Mac are on yet another stadium tour this Summer.

Spielberg might wear the crown, but Image Entertainment's newly-released high definition transfer of Assault is nevertheless very welcome.

For a start, it gives British fans a chance to experience this influential film properly - and after a long wait - in 2.35:1 Panavision, unlike the current UK DVD, inexplicably framed at 1.85:1. It's bad enough cropping any movie like that, but when it's been made by a director who is a master of widescreen composition, you're talking about vandalism.

And the film does not disappoint as entertainment. At the time, Carpenter wanted a career desperately. His budget was a mere $100 000 - CE3K cost $20m - so he had to apply great imagination and skill to his professional debut/showreel (the earlier Dark Star was an expanded student project). Less had to mean more.

Many of you might remember individual sequences. To name but two, there are the shocking but blackly comic murder of a young girl, shot through her ice cream cone, and the gang's attack with silenced guns that creates an chillingly beautiful flurry of paper and broken glass inside the station. But watching the film again in its entirety, you also become aware of the consistent creation of tension and mood, and of the strong performances Carpenter got from his unknown cast.

Remembered in bits, most likely because of its age, it's gratifying to be reminded that the film is very much all of a piece - a 91-minute thrill ride with the right number of peaks and troughs. Halloween would be, by comparison, a more straightforward albeit ruthlessly efficient exercise in going 'Boo!'

The DVD features a self-deprecating and considered commentary from the director (lifted from an earlier US laserdisc release). In it, he notes that today, he would have had to put more action sequences into the film to get it funded. What he doesn't make clear, though, is just how comfortable he feels about that. Would he personally want more gunfights or is he dryly noting contemporary producers' taste? One hopes it's the latter.

As special editions go the excellent transfer (there is some grain but that's mostly from the original negative) and commentary make for a respectable package. Which is good, given there isn't too much else of note. A retrospective interview with Carpenter and actor Austin Stoker contains memorable anecdotes but is so badly shot and has such poor sound that it irritates as much as it informs. You'll only watch it once. Similarly, the stills gallery is of the take-it-or-leave it kind. We also get only a mono soundtrack, although there is a music-only option that showcases the film's famous and ominous electronic score.

Somehow, though, those quibbles don't matter, because this disc offers one other revelation. Assault has dated better than CE3K - both have great technique and remain fun, but Carpenter's film seems more in tune with our times and far more urgent in its demand for your attention. Which leads on to a possible irony: when Spielberg decided to get tough in Minority Report, whose name occasionally sprang to your mind watching its hunted and stoical hero in a screwed-up world?

It might not be sci-fi, but an urban western. However, Assault's and Carpenter's influences on new and existing filmmakers in our genre persist to this day. If you take your cinema seriously, you must see this movie.

Paul Dempsey

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