Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
By: Mr Intolerance on October 15, 2007  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
DVD
Image Entertainment (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 1.0. 91 minutes
The Movie
Credits
Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Martin West, Tony Burton, Charles Cyphers
Screenplay: John Carpenter
Country: USA
Taking a riff on Rio Bravo, it's an amazing action-film performance. For a low budget film, this packs an almighty wallop. Carpenter loads in elements of the modern action and thriller film with the Western and comes out with a knock-out movie that should be seen by everyone, immediately.

This is a film from a time when Carpenter couldn't put a foot wrong: Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing – all genius work, and all delivered in rapid order. Admittedly with Starman the quality rapidly decreased, but in his first few years as Director: like I said – genius – and as such, he's one of my heroes. So am I writing this from a fan-boy point of view? Hell yes.

The basic plot is pretty simple: lieutenant Bishop (effectively the John Wayne character) is taking over Precinct 9, Division 13 (yes, I know, I know…), while the rest of the force is moving to another station-house. The gang "Street Thunder" attack the building in retaliation for the murder (and it is murder) of a number of their gang members by the police, having sworn blood-revenge. That's pretty much about it, plot-wise. The rest is down to the acting, direction, and above all, tension..

At the same time, a bus commuting villains Wells, Cordell and uber-bad guy Napoleon Wilson is heading cross-town to be put in the Big House, in Wilson's case, to be put on death-row. Carpenter used to write really good tough-guy banter – an example of it here: Wilson gets knocked out of a chair by a sadistic prison warden, and quips, "Yeah, I don't sit in chairs as well as I used to" – but when he gets the opportunity to kick the same dirty copper's arse to the curb, says, "He don't stand up as well as he used to" – comedy gold. The same kind of tough-guy wit that powers Kurt Russell's characters in Escape From New York, Big Trouble in Little China and The Thing. Still cool even to this day. Wilson's cigarette gag, while a little intrusive, is a constant throughout the film, and a nice throwback to directors like Howard Hawks, to whom this film is practically a tribute, as much as Carpenter's re-make of Hawks' The Thing.

The sub-plot with the vengeful father could probably never be dealt with in the same way as it was then, with the degree of coldness it is in this film – the little girl being shot is a terrible moment, and one today's Hollywood would definitely shy away from.

Bishop's character is nicely restrained, as opposed to Wayne's usual blustering bravado in Rio Bravo, Laurie Zimmer exudes Lauren Bacall-cool in her role, Wilson is smoulderingly potentially violent, but still the anti-hero Kurt Russell should have played. The bit where Wilson breaks the guy who's attacking him's arm; fucking nasty – arms aren't meant to bend like that.

Oh, and for those interested, Le Syndicat Electronique have a cover of Carpenter's theme music for this film ready for your listening pleasure – electro goodness on the Disco Undead compilation – the track's entitled, fittingly enough, "The Anderson Alamo".

Shot in an almost documentary fashion to give it that sense of veracity, with times and dates super-imposed on the screen, Assault On Precinct 13 is a masterpiece of action film-making. Okay, so some of the scenes are a little long, and a few of the camera-shots linger a little too much or seem to pan forever, but considering this is a first time shooting-for-the studios director, this is impressive stuff. And what's more, it gives us the first proper cinematic debut of one of the action/horror films greatest artists. Viva la Carpenter!
Video
The 16x9 enhanced 2.35:1 transfer shows occasional hints of grain and film damage, but looks the bomb, given this film is nearly as old as me.
Audio
The original mono track is the only available option. It's okay, but nothing special.
Extra Features
A trifle lacking – the feature length commentary by John Carpenter is a bit narrative-recount heavy, lacking in the kind of anecdotes folks like you and I expect. The interview with Carpenter and star Austin Stoker is sporadically amusing and enlightening – I like the fact that Carpenter is a placid, humble kind of fella, with a nice touch of self-deprecating wit – for example, when asked about how his work is perceived in France as opposed to the US, he responds to that with how in France he's seen as almost an auteur, but in America, "I'm a bum." Kind of reminded me of how Stephen King sees himself as the literary equivalent to a burger and fries… There are also some radio spots, the original theatrical trailer, Carpenter's excellent score isolated and a still gallery (meh). Some proper interviews with the cast would have been nice, he hinted…
The Verdict
Probably about the best version of this film you're likely to find on DVD, Assault on Precinct 13 is as good an action film as any you're likely to see. Taut, violent and well-acted, it's a tense tour de force. When I first watched this, I stopped the disc at the end, and watched it again. Yes, it's that good.
Movie Score
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