Assault on Precinct 13, 1976.
Directed by John Carpenter.
Starring Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Charles Cyphers, Tony Burton, Nancy Loomis, Martin West.
A cop and a ragtag collection of criminals defend a closing police station against an invading gang.
Often lauded as ‘the ultimate siege move’, John Carpenter’s second full-length feature Assault on Precinct 13 is 40 years old this month and has been given an HD makeover by Second Sight Films in a rather splendid special edition Blu-ray (and DVD) set. With Carpenter back in the headlines as he is currently touring the UK performing the themes from his movies, what better time for a reissue of one of his often overlooked early works?
Perhaps the reason for this film being considered as ‘the ultimate…’ is in its simplicity. Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker – Sheba, Baby) is sent to a closing-down police station to cover for the night before all of the power is shut off and the building finally closed. Meeting there with the skeleton staff, Bishop thinks he is in for a quiet night but a bus-load of convicts on a prison transfer stops off as one of their party is sick, forcing Bishop to open up the cells while a doctor is called. All goes well until a man bursts into the station, unable to speak but clearly in trouble as a gang of thugs is chasing him, and what follows is a night of bloody violence as the people inside the building – cops and convicts – are forced to team up to survive against the marauding forces outside.
Inspired by Howard Hawks’ western Rio Bravo and George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Assault on Precinct 13 is John Carpenter at his inventive best as he gives you an opening that sets the scene perfectly with downtown Los Angeles moving from the daytime and into the night with some stunning photography, and that’s just before he pulls o
/+he rug from under you with a brutal act of violence that almost landed the film an X-rating back in 1976. Remember that scene in Halloween where Carpenter broke with convention and made Michael Myers kill a dog? Well, he was breaking those rules about what you can or can’t kill in a movie two years before that and it’s still as effective.
After that we get to the meat of the story and that’s when the Carpenter-isms kick in big time. Backing everything up with an insistent, pulsing electronic score, the film becomes almost a buddy movie as Bishop has to team up with convicts Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston – The Fog) and Wells (Tony Burton – Rocky) to try and figure out how to escape, with Darwin Joston in particular really shining as the witty Napoleon (and just why is he called Napoleon?) and being a character that you shouldn’t really like because of his criminal activities but he’s just so damn charming that you cannot help it. The gang members stay fairly nondescript and that’s all the better for the movie, becoming like Night of the Living Dead as the menace on the outside tries to get in and it doesn’t really matter who they are or what they look like.
The only real complaint to be made about this film is that the pacing is a little off during the first half, with Carpenter stretching out certain scenes for no obvious reason and then using exposition to speed through others, and the reason why the man is being chased and then the building put under siege may feel a little exaggerated when you think about it but this is a low-budget 1970s exploitation movie so you have to be a little forgiving about such things. And quite honestly, when the cast and crew seem to be giving their all in a film that cost less to make than an MCU movie’s catering budget and come up with a finished movie that is so fraught with tension and danger and just so damn entertaining at the same time then these niggles pale into insignificance.
Looking at the film 40 years on, it doesn’t really appear to have aged. The Blu-ray clean up obviously helps – the film does look amazingly crisp and clear – but the fact that the movie does not pander to any for-the-time current trends also helps and keeps the action relatively low-key; always simmering just below the surface and occasionally exploding into a bullet-riddled set piece but never going for the over-the-top theatrics that no doubt would have become the focal point had the film been made 10 years later. The package itself is pretty extensive, featuring audio commentaries from John Carpenter and art director Tommy Lee Wallace, plus cast and crew interviews, John Carpenter’s short film Captain Voyeur (Blu-ray only), limited edition art cards and the eerie soundtrack CD (Blu-ray only), so as a celebration of a 40-year-old movie this is about as definitive as it gets but more than the extra goodies that come with the main feature, the movie itself still holds up as an intense and engrossing siege story with characters you can root for and a directorial style that may have flourished more in later movies but here benefits from the claustrophobic setting and ‘70s grit. He may have made bigger, and probably even better, films but with Assault on Precinct 13 John Carpenter crafted a template to build off, and just look where he went with it. Classic.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★