= Highest Rating
on Precinct 13,
John Carpenter's low budget reworking of the
classic Howard Hawks western Rio
Bravo, isn't believable for a second
yet this doesn't stop it from being a fun little
B picture in the best drive-in tradition. This
was Carpenter's second feature film and the
first to have a real shooting schedule. (His
directorial debut, Dark
Star, which cost $60,000 to produce,
was filmed sporadically over a period of years.)
Considering the limited time and resources at
hand, plus the relatively raw experience of
the director and many of his cast and crew,
Assault plays much
better than it has any right to, even today.
In many respects it's a very old fashioned movie.
plot's pretty basic. The most vicious street
gangs of the Los Angeles area have (improbably)
joined together to form a confederacy called
"Street Thunder", the various racial
white, Chicano, Asian, and black —
combining in a sort of criminal Rainbow Coalition.
When six members of Street Thunder are ambushed
and cut down by the police the four warlords
of the gang vow a blood oath of revenge. Using
a large cache of stolen silencer-equipped weapons
they launch a campaign of terror against the
city. In the opening moves of this crime wave
an ice cream truck driver and a little girl
are ruthlessly shot to death by the cold, automaton-like
leader of Street Thunder's white contingent.
(While not gory, the onscreen murder of the
child is absolutely startling by today's PC-oriented
standards.) The girl's father, filled with rage,
goes after the assassin and luckily manages
to kill him. Gang members in turn pursue the
man, chasing him to a police precinct building.
Seeking sanctuary inside, he doesn't know that
the headquarters is virtually abandoned, scheduled
to be officially shut down that very night.
a handful of people are inside: a desk sergeant,
a couple of female clerks, a lieutenant from
another division on temporary duty, three convicts
en route to a state prison and their guards.
When he bursts in the terrified man collapses
in a heap, too shocked to explain what's happened.
Then the desk sergeant is cut down by silenced
rifle fire the moment he steps outside the front
door. The same fate befalls one of the prisoners
and the escort as they prepare to leave. Power
and phone service to the isolated building are
cut off; a small army of Street Thunder members
cordon off and surround the area. Lt. Bishop
(Battle for the Planet
of the Apes' Austin Stoker) succinctly
assesses the situation: "It's a goddamned
siege!" In a snap decision he frees
the two surviving convicts, Wilson (Darwin Josten)
and Wells (Tony Burton), to help defend the
station. The gang makes its intentions clear
when the warlords ceremoniously mark the station's
occupants for death. Then, with a sudden rush
of armed figures loping forward in the dark,
the first assault wave comes in...
pace of the film is deliberately slow and "stately",
as Carpenter says in the audio commentary, in
the fashion of movies made in the '40s and '50s.
This means we spend more time with the characters
as they interact with each other, especially
when compared with the frenetically-paced films
of today. (Doubly so for exploitation flicks,
which nowadays go straight to home video rather
than making the drive-in circuit.) When the
action comes it's meant to be as a sudden, frenzied
burst of violence. Carpenter refers to Assault
on Precinct 13 as a mixture of Rio
Bravo with Night
of the Living Dead; the description is apt.
In one sequence the gang members attack the
station almost like the zombies in George Romero's
horror film, bursting through windows and breaking
down doors to get at those inside.
exception of a brief focus on the Street Thunder
warlords in Assault's
opening act, the villains are all anonymous
shapes in the dark, never speaking.
Since Carpenter takes his time introducing
the main characters and getting them all together,
this means we're in for more chat than action
— and screenwriting has never been his strong
suit. (Particularly this early in his career.
The director admits as much in the disc's audio
commentary.) Some of the dialog is rather hokey.
But the cast saves the script. Stoker, as the
beleaguered Lt. Bishop, is the most seasoned
performer. His reactions to the increasingly
dangerous situation provide the anchor in reality
the movie really needs. As Leigh, one of the
station clerks, Laurie Zimmer is practically
a caricature of the tough-as-nails Noir dame
of the '40s; her smoky voice and sexy 'Girl
Next Door' looks make the character work. And
while heroic convict Napoleon Wilson is a lot
like Carpenter's Snake Plissken (only without
the eyepatch), Darwin Josten handles the role
quite well. Had the film been produced later
in Carpenter's career I could easily see Kurt
Russell playing the part. (Trivia note: Originally
entitled The Anderson Alamo and later
The Siege, the distributors changed the
title to what it is today... This despite the
fact the movie actually takes place at Precinct
9, Division 13.)
Entertainment's re-release of Assault
on Precinct 13 as a "special edition"
certainly lives up to the nomenclature. Relatively
low priced, the disc presents the film via an anamorphic
2.35:1 widescreen transfer accessorized with a full
slate of extras.
Despite the additional goodies, however,
the best news here is how the film looks and sounds,
which is pretty darn good. Having only seen Assault
on Pan & Scan VHS some 20 years ago, I can say that
I'd never really watched it before viewing
this DVD. Even without stunning landscapes or large
scale set-pieces Carpenter makes full use of the
wide Panavision frame. The print is nearly blemish
free, with only minor instances of grain. This is
a very dark movie, too, particularly in the last
30 minutes, but scenes are clear even when shot
in ambient light using fog filters, as much of the
station interiors were. As for sound quality, the
2-channel digital mono audio is surprisingly strong
— especially in regards to the film's ominously
pulsing synthesizer score. (Another Carpenter specialty,
which he began honing in earnest with this movie.)
I've already mentioned the audio commentary, which
is ported from the mid-'90s laserdisc edition. Carpenter
does a solid job of describing the genesis of the
project and (especially) the film's production.
Even when occasionally lapsing into simple blow-by-blow
descriptions of what we're seeing on the screen
he quickly embellishes these remarks with pertinent
asides on technical aspects, locations, actors,
and so forth. For a one-person commentary there's
very little dead air.
to Carpenter's discussion track the DVD features
the original theatrical trailer, a selection of
an excellent production gallery (running 17 minutes,
it includes descriptive screencaps to divide the
various sections), a video interview with Carpenter
and Austin Stoker held after a revival showing in
January 2002, and an isolated music score option.
There's quite a bit of bang for the buck here.