Genre: Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 31 min.
Release Date: November 5th, 1976 MPAA Rating: R
Director: John Carpenter Actors: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Martin West, Tony Burton, Nancy Loomis
ssault on Precinct 13” features no big-name stars and no well-known filmmakers, save for writer/director John Carpenter (who would become much more popular two years later with “Halloween”), but the story is particularly engaging and the pacing quick. It’s one of the first notably violent, contemporary, action-heavy thrillers to place convicts (or antiheroes) in the position of helping law enforcement – an idea that would lead the way for Carpenter’s own “Escape from New York” and films like “Con Air,” “The Rock,” and “Demolition Man.” It’s also a motif that was used in Westerns as far back as “Rio Bravo” (1959).
It starts with the familiar, synthesized, simple, repetitive yet effective (or perhaps just fitting) music composed by Carpenter himself, and the typical dark setting with sudden violence and handheld camerawork. In Anderson, California, a Los Angeles ghetto and truly bad part of town, on a Saturday at 3:10 a.m., six gang members get caught in a police shootout – a total massacre. Missing automatic weapons push the cops toward deplorable means of retrieval, but if the firearms remain in the wrong hands, nothing will be able to stop the vengeful crooks. These must be some unusually powerful guns. The following week, Lieutenant Bishop (Austin Stoker), on his first night out, is sent to the Anderson district to aid in the closure of Precinct 13, an apparently very isolated station readying for relocation (in the film, it’s specifically Precinct 9, Division 13, but the title was reworked in post-production).
Meanwhile, three prisoners are being driven to death row, led by smug convict Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), a remarkably dangerous criminal continually mistreated by the warden. Nevertheless, he retains a good humor and a deep-seated sense of revenge; he’s not a psychopath and he’s not stupid, but he’s definitely a killer. When one of the prisoners becomes ill, commanding officer Special Agent Starker (Charles Cyphers) orders the bus to make an emergency stop at Precinct 13. To make matters worse, a traumatized man who just witnessed the murder of his daughter, runs to the jail, leading dozens of members of the distinctly interracial gang Street Thunder (the group now outfitted with the stolen weaponry) directly to the few remaining officers and secretaries in the subdivision building – for a night of terrifying, unrelenting, heavy-fire onslaughts.
As the anarchical thugs lay siege to the police station, panic, disbelief, and mob mentalities begin to conflict the group. Some wish to give up the prisoners; others want to arm them to assist in defense. The scenario mixes the survival elements of “Dawn of the Dead” or “Aliens” with the paranoia factors in Carpenter’s later project “The Thing” (though “Assault on Precinct 13” predates them all).
An early text implies that the cops are generally mistrustful, so it’s distinctly conflicting when a decent officer refuses to take the easy way out – intending to protect everyone equally, including the death row potentials. They are no longer on opposing sides. Sure enough, Wilson and Wells (Tony Burton), one of the other inmates, become two of the strongest assets in the fight. Another notable participant is Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), an incredibly calm secretary and love interest for Wilson (although it’s a necessary role it’s a largely unnecessary romance). And, speaking of inessential, a completely disorienting moment of Wells and Wilson playing “potatoes,” a drawing-of-straws or paper-rock-scissors type game is completely out of place and downright laughable. Yet it unmistakably seems like the scripting of the director, who would use more polished humor in 1988’s “They Live.” Here, the bonding between characters is the most unrefined and unconvincing aspect of the feature.
At least Carpenter has the sense not to gun down any old ladies, though ice cream truck drivers make good targets. After all, the bad guys have to be especially bad. This adds to the complexities of the remaining characters, chiefly when the prisoners opt to join forces with the law to momentarily combat a common enemy. The morality themes in “Assault on Precinct 13” are the most redeeming points, and absorbing enough to lead to a 2005 remake of the same name. Carpenter would reuse just about everything in this flick for his subsequent endeavors, improving upon the less fastidious pieces of his gritty, low budget, now cult-status thriller.
– Mike Massie