Half a century has passed since Manny Farber wrote in these pages about underground films, by which he meant the urban crime movies watched by male loiterers near the Greyhound station, in theaters whose dank gumminess rivaled that of the bus terminal’s restrooms. The close fit among setting, audience and cinematic expression particularly recommended such movies to Farber, who recognized meaning and purpose where others saw only inadequacy. He noted, for example, that these so-called action pictures often showed little more than views of men standing around on a sidewalk, waiting for something to happen. The something, when it came, was often an inventive way to torture human flesh.
Very little changed in the world of movie-watching between the publication of that great essay and 1976, when Assault on Precinct 13 first unspooled near America’s bus terminals. All right, a lot had changed. The studio system was gone, a generation of film-school graduates was breaking into the big time, and a surprisingly large audience could now name the makers of Farber’s underground movies and believed that these directors deserved the name of auteur. Still: Time in 1976 could be wasted as cheaply as in 1950 at a city-center moviehouse, if you weren’t squeamish about the people sitting behind you, the stuff sucking at your shoes or the spasmodic shadows passing across the screen, made up half of existential dread and half of anomie. You paid a buck or so to get indoors, and Assault on Precinct 13 showered you with an hour and a half of unreasoning, unstoppable blood lust, loosed from those imaginary ganglands of Los Angeles where the only stable, responsible types were those whose criminality had risen to the level of a career. As the story of a siege at a police station, the movie provided long stretches of dead time. As an updated and citified version of Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo, it also gave you glimpses of character, though without Hawks’s warmth and breadth of vision. The approach was more like that of the Cossack narrator of one of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry stories, who goes back to his village to confront the landowner: “I stomped him for an hour or more, and during that time I got to know something about him and his life.”
This isn’t to say that Assault on Precinct 13 qualified as a classic. (“Archaizing” would have been a better word for its effect.) The picture was just something you could discover on your own, in a public place. Its maker, John Carpenter, had not yet achieved fame and riches through Halloween. The theaters where it showed had not yet split into multiplexes, with ticket prices in the double digits. The event-movie era, with its thrilling box-office reports, had barely begun; and “home video” still meant whatever the TV was broadcasting.
So the release of an all-star, Franco-American remake of Assault on Precinct 13 is worth noting, as another milestone on our journey away from old-fashioned film culture.
Rather than being cast like the original, whose performers you will not be able to identify unless your name is Tarantino, the new Assault on Precinct 13 may legitimately be said to star the actors Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne, with John Leguizamo, Drea de Matteo, Maria Bello, Brian Dennehy, Gabriel Byrne and Jeffrey “Ja Rule” Atkins in supporting roles. Note the whiff of prestige. Observe as well the pairing of a strong, menacing, above-the-law black killer with a younger, weaker, vacillating white cop–a combination that inescapably brings to mind Hawke’s previous outing in such a role, in the Oscar-winning Training Day. Despite being sent out into the wasteland of January, despite having roots in grind houses, this Assault on Precinct 13 expects to be taken seriously by at least some portion of the audience. You might even say it aspires to partake in an American “tradition of quality.”