Benjamin has been reviewing films online since 2004 and has seen way more action movies than he should probably admit to!
What's the Big Deal?
Assault on Precinct 13 is an action thriller film released in 1976 that was written, scored, edited and directed by John Carpenter. The film depicts a violent showdown in downtown Los Angeles between the terrified occupants of a decommissioned police station and the large, ruthless street gang out for their blood. The film stars Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer and Tony Burton. Carpenter admitted that the film was partly inspired by the zombie film Night of the Living Dead and Howard Hawkes' western Rio Bravo. Critics were initially unimpressed with the film, but when the film launched in the UK, it was warmly received by critics and audiences alike. Its success enabled Carpenter to be able to produce his next film, the highly influential slasher Halloween. The film has since become a cult classic with some believing it to be the best in John Carpenter's career. It would be followed by a remake in 2005 starring Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne, but this was considered a more average effort and ultimately failed at the box office.
What's It About?
In an impoverished area of south Los Angeles, a criminal gang known as Street Thunder have stolen a cache of automatic weapons and hidden them despite the efforts of the LAPD to recover them. Six members of Street Thunder are gunned down by police one night and the four leaders of the gang swear a blood oath to seek vengeance on the police and the city of LA in general. The next day, newly promoted police officer Ethan Bishop receives his first assignment - the Anderson precinct is being decommissioned tomorrow and Bishop is to supervise the station and its skeleton crew until then. Meanwhile, members of Street Thunder are roaming the streets and begin their campaign of terror by murdering a young girl and an ice-cream van owner in front of the girl's father. While Mr Lawson chases after them, Lt Bishop is surprised when a prison transport turns up at Anderson with three criminals on board, one of whom requires urgent medical attention.
While Bishop and Officer Starker try in vain to get hold of a doctor, Lawson manages to kill one of the leaders of Street Thunder before finding himself hopelessly outnumbered. Fleeing in panic, he bursts into Anderson station but falls into catatonic shock before he can warn the occupants of the station. Before long, the gang have surrounded Anderson and begin a violent siege that threatens the lives of everyone cowering for survival inside the isolated station...
Lieutenant Ethan Bishop
Release Date (UK)
10th March, 1978
15 (2008 re-rating)
Action, Crime, Thriller
What's to Like?
Fans of Carpenter's work will be delighted to find that this early effort contains many of his signatures such as the simple electronic soundtrack performed by the man himself and long, silent sequences that build up tension. In fact, much of the first half of the film is taken up with setting the scene for the second half but that isn't to say that it's boring. The chilling sequence featuring the warlords making the blood pact is disturbing enough before a truly shocking scene involving the gang members and innocent parties at an ice-cream van. Much like George A. Romero's zombie hordes in Night Of The Living Dead, the gang members are silent and relentless and inscrutable.
When the film does kick off, Carpenter delivers plenty of bang for your buck with action scenes that have a gritty feel. The film's low budget is hardly noticeable as windows are smashed in and faceless criminals are gunned down in bloody self-defence. It's a effective culmination of the tension built up and as characters are picked off one by one, it becomes a curious blend of survival western and horror. I couldn't help but be reminded of The Thing and the under-rated Escape From New York and if Assault On Precinct 13 achieves anything, it illustrates Carpenter's talents as a filmmaker. He's not just an icon of horror but could also probably deliver a high quality action movie, one that revels in its cinematic influences. Actually, he did - doesn't Big Trouble In Little China fulfil that brief?
- Despite the film's title, the assault actually takes place on Precinct 9, Division 13. The title, which was originally to be The Anderson Alamo, was changed because it was felt that Assault on Precinct 13 was a more ominous title.
- The entire film was shot in just 20 days while Carpenter composed the score in just three days. He later said that this was the most fun he has ever had as a director.
- The film first found success in the UK after a rapturous reception at the London Film Festival in late 1977 which led to further success in Europe and then a more positive reappraisal in America. Paying homage to the British distributor of the film, Carpenter decided to name an important character in his next film after him - the unstoppable killer Michael Myers in Halloween.
- The young girl shot at the ice-cream van was played by Kim Richards, an established child actor at the time who would later find renewed fame as a cast member of The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills and is the aunt of socialite Paris Hilton.
What's Not to Like?
Unfortunately, the film can't quite escape its own flaws. My biggest issue was with the cast who don't ring any bells with me today and are noticeably rusty in places. The exceptions are Darwin Joston who is fantastic as the charismatic killer Napoleon Wilson and blaxploitation star Austin Stoker in a rare leading role outside of the genre. The rest, I'm afraid to say, aren't very good - Laurie Zimmer's stoic heroine might be attempting to rip off a Lauren Bacall-style femme fatale but she is far better than the stilted Nancy Loomis, who did a much better job serving as the film's wardrobe mistress. With much of the film set within the police station, the film also has a rather stagey feel with wobbly walls and some suspect set design.
There are also parts of the film that haven't aged well such as the opening sequence which felt to me like an ill-lit and crudely edited student film. The film struggles to escape its B-movie shackles despite Carpenter's best efforts and as a B-movie, this is pretty good. But Carpenter only seems to do B-movies, as though studios are afraid to take a chance on him or (more likely) refuse to give him the creative freedom he desires. As it is, Assault on Precinct 13 is a decent enough crime thriller that deserves its cult status. It's an easy film to appreciate but perhaps my expectations were a touch too high after other Carpenter films I've seen lately.
Should I Watch It?
As short and sharp as a tequila slammer, Assault on Precinct 13 delivers what it promises but leaves you wanting more. The film is a tense but predictable thriller that is ultimately undone by an amateur cast and some obvious corner-cutting. Having said that, fans of John Carpenter will enjoy this and I understand why the film is held in high regard. It's still worth a watch but it is a step down from some of Carpenter's best work.
Great For: thriller fans, John Carpenter's experience, musicians sampling the soundtrack
Not So Great For: anyone expecting the quality of The Thing, residents of South Central LA, anyone with a fear of random violence, ice-cream vans
What Else Should I Watch?
Carpenter has unquestionably left his mark on cinema with landmark pictures Halloween and The Thing. The former marked the start of the so-called Golden Age of slasher films, capitalising on the shock factor of earlier films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre while introducing Jamie Lee Curtis to audiences worldwide. The latter is arguably the highlight of body horror, a genuinely chilling and paranoid sci-fi thriller that combines some sickening effects and a tight script to terrify viewers into submission. He has also found success with a number of films that have gone on to become cult classics such as They Live, The Fog and Starman.
There are a number of gang films available to choose from, whether you are looking for films that glorify or demonise them. The Warriors is another cult classic, depicting a stranded gang trapped deep in enemy territory with their rivals out for blood. For a less frantic experience, how about timeless musical West Side Story or its forthcoming remake? For a more authentic gang movie, I utterly recommend Training Day with Denzel Washington's Oscar-winning performance as an undercover officer who's crossed too far over the line as well as the overlooked Narc which follows a similar premise and was unfortunately released a year later. Lastly, it's impossible to discuss gang films without mentioning The Wild One which saw Marlon Brando play the original bad-boy biker Johnny Strabler whose wild antics and behaviour caused huge controversy when the film was released back in the more innocent era of 1953.
© 2021 Benjamin Cox