Assault on Precinct 13
U.S.A. / 1976
Directed by John Carpenter
Austin Stoker
Darwin Josten
Laurie Zimmer
Color / 91 Minutes / R
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC)
Image Entertainment
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
    10   10 = Highest Rating  

Assault 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.
    The 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 components 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.
    Only 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...
    The 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. With the 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.)

Image 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.

    In addition to Carpenter's discussion track the DVD features the original theatrical trailer, a selection of radio spots, 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. 4/06/03