I was gonna title the entry "Assault on Dumb, Damned Precinct 13," but that seemed too obvious.
So I figured, awhile back, that I ought to get ahold of this thing and see it, based largely on the fact that it is a cult classic widely hailed as the first symptoms of John Carpenter's genius.
The film opens with gang members, their faces obscured in shadow, scurrying like rodents through an alleyway. They are ordered by a bunch of cops, faces also obscured, to halt and put down their weapons. At which point the anonymous cops shoot the gang members down like . . . well, like rodents.
This is followed by a chunk of cheesy expositional voiceover played as a politician's explanation of the events and a vow to respond by all apropriate blah blah blah. Cut to an apartment, where the gang, comprised of three hispanics and an angry white guy, cut themselves in order to swear a Cholo. As to why they are swearing a bastard, I don't know.
Actually, later in the film it is explained that a "cholo" is a vow meaning they no longer care if they live or die, so long as they get vengence. Which also makes no sense, given that cholo means approximately either "half-breed" or "bastard," but we'll come back to that later.
Cut to our happy go lucky police officer, leaving his house, starting the prowler, and cruising along until it dawns on him that he has not gotten his assignment for the day! So he calls in on the radio asking for an assignment.
Now, I'm not a cop, but I have a pretty shrewd notion that that's not how things are done. Or, for that matter, were done back in the casual days of 1976. Also, I'm pretty sure the cops don't exchange pleasantries such as "Hey! I didn't expect to hear your voice over the radio anytime soon!!!" I could explain how that exchange is relevant, but . . . Actually, no, I can't. It is in this excahange that some of the exposition comes out about the precinct being vacated and stuff, but they very well could have had that on a billboard by the side of the road as he was passing for that matter.
The next thing that got me was an extended perp walk after they have established the convict characters (Black Guy, Sick Guy, Extra Guy, and Serial Killer With A Heart Of Gold). I guess they had more exposition than they had real estate to cross, so the perps slowed down to a painfully inexpert shuffle while they trade quips. Now, there are ways this can be done. Give them shackles, perhaps. But, sadly, that wasn't an option, as they couldn't even afford proper chain gear. The inmates were supposed to be shackled together with a long, chrome plated logging chain, which would have been attached (one supposes) to their hand cuffs; however, they had to mime this by holding the logging chain in their hands. Helpfully, the cop bringing up the rear (who had earlier been revealed to be Slightly Sadistic Cop) reinforced the illusion by holding the end of the chain casually. Like you would the leash of a small, bashful, immensely well trained dog.
Now, let me take this opportunity to make the point that I am picking up the bad spots. For the most part, the film is just mediocre. But when it's dumb, it is immensely dumb. Like the next segement, which consists of the four gang members (3 Hispanics & White Guy) getting into a car and driving around loading the weapons that, it was explained in the radio voice over, were stolen from the police to begin with. Which is a fine enough bit of exposition, but I don't understand why it had to take four minutes. With no dialogue. (In fact, aside from cholo, the gang members aren't afforded any dialogue at all.)
Meanwhile, Happy Cop shows up at the precinct, where we are introduced to the next two major characters, two secretaries I shall call Dumb Bunny and Tits. Dumb Bunny's job is to demonstrate that things either don't work or are about to be shut off, while Tits' is to act tough, so that we are given the timeless message that women with large breasts can be heroes too. Or something like that. Oh, and she also informs us that the phone and the power will be shut off at ten the next morning. That's actually the line of dialogue. "They'll shut off the phones and the power at ten o'clock tomorrow morning." At which point, one assumes, her college roommate's boyfriend will show up with his van to help them move.
A few minutes later we are introduced to Angry Old White Cop, whose main fuinction is to reiterate the precinct's uselessness. Happy Cop: "You got any facilities?" Angry White Cop: "We got a coupla cells and bathroom." Riiiiight. All the rest of the facilities were packed up and hauled away the day before. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that some precincts areen't or weren't small like that. It was just one of the things about the flick that bugged me. The building was clearly something like 10,000 square feet, but the action took place in four basic areas. There will be more on that later.
Meanwhile, the convicts, on there way from unidsclosed location one to undisclosed location two, are afforded their part in the exoposition. Serial Killer With A Heart Of Gold talks to Enigmatic Intellectual Cop, and then Sick Guy, doing the worst sick guy act ever, acts sick, whereupon Black Guy insists that Sick Guy needs medical attention, in an exchange which was blatantly lifted from The Fugiti . . . Oh, wait. That would be the other way around. Well, if your were gonna crib something out of this piece of offal, I guess that'd be the thing to crib.
At some point in here we have the father-daughter in the car routine, apparently going to pick up an insane aunt whom they want to take home to live with them. I'm glad they had all the expositional dialogue, or else I would have thought the scene was a happy child molester charming his latest mark. But that wasn't really the problem with this part of the set up. That's to come shortly.
Meanwhile, the gang continues it's cholo. Apparently this involves the stalking and killing of an ice cream truck driver. Don't ask me why. But apparently, ice cream truck drivers are wiley. I'm seriouys, they had to stalk him for a solid four or five minutes. (Times here are approximate. And exagerrated.)
At some point in this journey, Father has to stop to make a call on a pay phone. Now, where the hell are they going that he has to stop and make a phone call on a pay phone? In the mean time, the girl spots the ice cream truck, and goes to buy a cone. The driver first insists he's closed, trying to stall her off because he knows the stalking is going on, and . . . Hell, do I know? Eventually he relents, giving her a hand dipped ice cream cone and sending her on her way, so that White Guy can confront him with a handgun with a silencer on it-- Why a silencer? No idea. But they all have silencers on their guns. Anyways, he teases the Ice Cream Guy with the silenced gun, while the girl suddenly notices "Hey! This is regular vanilla!!!" When clearly she had asked for something else. This bit of exposition is intended to demonstrate that the little girl is clearly too dumb to live and ought to be killed. Which happens next.
By the way, the whole film takes place approximately in The Land Of The Deaf and Blind. Either that or on the set of a Twilight Zone episode.
A game of cat-and-mouse takes place between the Father and the Gang Members, right after ther Father has the Worst Grief Scene Ever over the dead body of his dumb daughter. This is only important to report since, in the end, he shoots White Guy. Nah, I take it back. That's not really important at all. It's supposed to be why the Gang attacks the Precinct. Now about that bridge I'm selling . . .
Meanwhile Happy Cop is posting a sign with the address of the new precinct on it. We've Moved!
Then the prison bus shows up. Happy Cop tries to send them to the new precinct, but one of the other cops complains that it's too far away. Now, this is not the actual dialogue, and it will only make sense if you imagine it being said by Homer Simpson: "Ten blocks!!! We don't have time for that!!! We have to put these guys in a holding cell and call for a doctor and wait for him!!! Ten blocks? That'll take forever!!!" Fifty-five miles an hour? Sure some lives may be saved, but millions will be late!!!"
At this point I stopped taking notes. Until the phone lines went out and one of the Prison Cops (who by this time had become interchangeable) checked out on the following closing line: "You're running this place about as well as chicken night in Turkey." Swear to God. I rewound it and listened to it three times. Chicken night in Turkey, thats what he said. What the @#$% it's supposed to mean, I do not know, but that is what he said.
So then the shooting started. Now, we started with four gang members, minus white guy that's three, but when the shooting started, suddenly there are at least 40 gang members. They hired some extras. I was gonna riff on that, saying they hired day laborers or some such offensive thing, but, nah: extras. No dialogue, no face time, nothing that would allow them any more than the minumum SAG compensation. Hadda be extras.
Also at this point the size of the building plays a part. It is emphasized that shooting is taking place all over the building, but the action is all confined to four small areas. Why? I dunno. Ask Carpenter. He doesn't know either, but I'm sure he'll have an answer for you.
Then, of course, the shooting stops, and all the characters get up and look out the windows, confident that the shooting has stopped at least long enough for them to look out the windows and indulge in more expository dialogue. I think it's like the rule with microwave popcorn: when the pops have slowed to three to four seconds between pops, it done.
After a few minutes of back and forth expository dialogue, which can essentially be summed up "We're @#$%ed!", the shootin' starts up again, this time with the gang members coming into the building, either by trying to crawl through window blinds (in which case they get blown away) or by stepping clealry into frame one at a time like targets at a county fair shooting gallery (in which case they get blown away). In this fashion, one cop, two convicts, Dumb Bunny and Tits take down appoximately 40 gang members. (The official body count, per later expository dialogue, is twelve, but I'm sticking with forty.)
At this point I stopped taking notes again. Of course Dumb Bunny dies. Of course Tits survives. Tits survives because she objected when Dumb Bunny suggested they throw Father Figure to the gang as a means of appeasement. (Dumb Bunny knows that he's who they're after, seemingly by sheer intuition. Oh, and by the way, that's also why she dies. Morality, dig?) Until the point where they started wondering if anyone was going to come help them (silencers, remember?), and Serial Killer points out that all the bodies have been moved. Inside the building and out. No bodies, no blood trails, no shell casings, no shrapnel marks of any kind on the outside of the building. And the lighting in the area is so poor you can't see the windows of the building, so it's impossible to tell whether they've been shot out.
And then I stopped taking notes again. (To be fair, this is when I got up and got myself a Dove ice cream bar. I figured I'd earned it.) Until Tits said "Don't forget about the cholo!!!"
What followed was as chunky a chunk of exposition as I've ever seen-- Carpenter is nothing if not efficient. Clumsily, clumsily efficient. Like a point guard who scores by tripping over his own feet and haphazardly throwing the ball into the basket. When the cholo was first declared, the gang members initiated it by slicing open their forearms with switchblades and bleeding into what appeared to be an eighteenth century finger bowl. During the break in the action before the county fair shooting gallery scene, the cholo became a rough, homemade flag thrown onto the lawn of the precinct house. Now, Tits explains, it means that the gang members no longer care if they live or die. That's some Cholo, that Cholo 22.
And then I stopped taking notes again, through a scene in which Black Guy proposes that they let him slip out a window and escape, a plan to which each character objects expositionally, while Black Guy points his gun at each one, as if it held the microphone meant to capture the expositional dialogue. Until this: Black Guy: "Why is it you're going instead of me?" White Guy: "We haven't even flipped a coin yet!" BG: "Flip a coin? Then I really am doomed!" Yada yada, yada yada, WG: "What then?" BG: "Potatoes!"
I kid you not. The convicts then proceed to have a high-stakes, kinectic, frenetic match of One-Potato-Two-Potato, with some profanity thrown in for that feeling of authentic Big House ritual.
After this we are treated to various scenes involving the sole squad car sent in to investigate the sounds of shooting, whose cop inhabitants can't seem to find even one of their assholes with all four hands, more faceless gang members shuffling about, many discussions about how few rounds they have left, to the point that I have memorized the collective number of unspent rounds (eight), a sloppy plot point about a highly explosive stack of crates approximately three feet square and four feet tall, labelled "evidence," which apparently got left behind in the move ("Martha! Where did you pack my evidence?!?" "Check in the box labelled 'kitchen utensils!'"), more wandering around by the clueless cops, who finally find the dead telephone repair man by parking directly under his hanging corpse so that his blood is dripping on the roof of their sqaud car (Actual dialogue: "Oh, great! And now it's raining! Wait a minute! That's not rain!!!), and finally the explosion of the evidence against the throngs of incompetently charging, anonymous, dialogueless gang members, and a final assault by throngs of-- again, faceless, anonymous, and dialogueless-- cops from the new precinct.
Oh, there's a couple of exceptions to the otherwise steadfast No Talking Among Anonymous Cops rule. Once so that we can see Tits has developed an affection, not to say an affectation, for Serial Killer, and once to show that Happy Cop would rather walk out with Serial Killer than have him handcuffed by their saviors. To be fair, Serial Killer did get some of the only good lines, and he, Happy Cop, and Tits are the only characters in the film who earn any emotional attachment at all. (Up to, and including Father Figure, who spends the majority of the scenes inside the precinct house swallowed in shadows, thus displaying his finest acting chops in the entire movie.)
Roll credits! Along with the cheesy John Carpenter music by John Carpenter with John Carpenter and John Carpenter. Which can be summed up very easily, as well as illustrated, by quoting a line from Dumb and Dumber: "You wanna hear the most annoying sound in the world? EEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee . . . "
Jerry Lee has seen Assault on Precinct 13.
Labels: Hypocrisy, Siphilytics, Symbology