With its irresistibly simple premise and ample supply of gunplay, Assault on Precinct 13 heralded the arrival of a promising, workmanlike genre director in John Carpenter. The action-thriller slipped in an out of U.S. theaters with little fanfare in 1976, but it quickly achieved cult status across the Atlantic Ocean and helped set the stage for Carpenter's big-time breakthrough two years later, with Halloween. Revisiting Assault in this "restored collector's edition," it remains an impressive example of the creativity and power that come from a tight budget and no-frills filmmaking.
Carpenter, who was only a few years out of the University of Southern California's film school at the time he made Assault for a paltry $100,000, indulges in plenty of movie-geek references. The picture itself is a re-jiggering of Rio Bravo, the masterful John Wayne Western directed by Carpenter's role model, Howard Hawks. Like that 1959 classic, Assault on Precinct 13 deals with a resolute lawman and a ragtag band of allies under siege by bad guys. Carpenter clues in the audience during the opening credits that identify the film editor as "John T. Chance," the name of John Wayne's heroic sheriff in Rio Bravo. But while Assault on Precinct 13 shares the rugged, self-assured archetypes of a Hawks western, it owes nearly as much to exploitation flicks and the claustrophobic intensity of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead.
Foreshadowing the nightmarish Manhattan that Carpenter would conjure up years later in Escape from New York, Assault on Precinct 13 paints a devastated Los Angeles that appears to be in the death grip of gang terror. In the opening minutes, we hear a radio news report in which the police commissioner all but suggests that street hoods are on the verge of taking over the city. In this sun-baked hellhole, Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is given the seemingly ho-hum task of babysitting an inner-city police station that is in the process of moving. The Anderson precinct (not the 13th precinct, incidentally -- the movie title is the invention of the movie's distributor) is down to a skeleton staff for the weekend. Bishop anticipates a dull night hanging out with the station's clerks, Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and Julie (Nancy Loomis).
No such luck. A multiethnic, and disconcertingly silent, gang dubbed Street Thunder guns down a little girl (Escape to Witch Mountain's Kim Richards) holding an ice cream cone. It's a shocking bit of violence that sufficiently gives viewers the impression that nothing is off-limits. The victim's father (Martin West) scurries after the thugs in a vain attempt at revenge, but eventually seeks refuge in the mostly shuttered Anderson station. The gang members surround the building. As the phone lines have already been cut by the phone company, the only help available to Bishop and the clerks are two prisoners -- one of whom, Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), is a notorious cold-blooded killer.
From this setup, writer-director Carpenter fashions an old-fashioned, tense thriller. It is not a hammer and tongs approach. Assault on Precinct 13 begins on a low simmer, introducing the key characters whose fates will converge at the nearly deserted police station. There is an agreeable directness to it all. The presentation is lean, with succinct exposition and characterization defined in clean, bold strokes. The gradual buildup is bolstered by an equally effective synthesizer-based music score composed by Carpenter himself. He says on the director's commentary that his chief inspirations were Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" and the score to Dirty Harry.
Carpenter's storytelling is more fluid than his writing. Much of the dialogue is clunky, especially the fortune-cookie aphorisms that weigh down an unremarkable performance by Joston. Still, even this would-be shortcoming feels endearingly old-school western, with its stoic male camaraderie and tough-guy banter. Zimmer, whose smoky eyes and sultry demeanor are reminiscent of Big Sleep-era Lauren Bacall, fills the role of the quintessential Hawks woman: sexy but strong enough to hang with the big boys.
Interestingly, Assault on Precinct 13 foretold some of where Carpenter would go as a filmmaker. The character of Napoleon Wilson would essentially reappear as Snake Pliskin in 1981's Escape from New York. That following year, Carpenter would again pay tribute to Hawks in his outstanding remake of 1951's The Thing from Another World (which Hawks produced and, for the most part, directed). And Carpenter would tinker with his own Assault premise in 2001's Ghosts of Mars.
This "restored collector's edition boasts a newly remastered digital print, boasting a 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 television screens. As you would expect, the picture quality is a marked improvement over its previous incarnations. Colors and lines are surprisingly sharp given the age of the film, with only minor grain in several scenes.
Purists can opt for the Dolby Digital Mono mix, but the souped-up edition offers Dolby Digital 5.1 as well as DTS 5.1. Both are very good, although the DTS gets a slight edge in terms of crispness. The sound separation isn't particularly showy, but it does help augment some of the gunplay scenes.
Optional subtitles are in Spanish and English for the hearing-impaired.
Most of the supplemental material is carried over from previous DVD and laserdisc incarnations, but it's all good stuff. A commentary with John Carpenter is chock full of anecdotes and information; the director is charmingly self-effacing and honest. He concedes that some of the dialogue sounds like "the product of a young man's mind" and identifies what he feels might be a "clanky" plot device. C'mon, John, don't be so hard on yourself. The movie is pretty terrific.
Also of interest is a 23-minute, seven-second interview with Carpenter and Stoker videotaped at Hollywood's Egyptian Theater in 2002. The picture quality is homemade quality, but the Q and A is interesting and amiable. As he is on the commentary, Carpenter is an engaging and informative interviewee.
Clocking in at nearly 17 minutes, the Assault on Precinct 13 production gallery features pages of the initial screenplay (originally titled The Anderson Alamo), storyboards and behind-the-scenes stills.
Viewers can also check out a theatrical trailer, two radio spots and an isolated score spotlighting Carpenter's music.
A solid picture, improved sound and a bit of additional bonus material makes this well worth a double-dip for fans. A taut, effective thriller that demonstrated low-budget moviemaking at its finest, Assault on Precinct 13 still holds up as one of John Carpenter's best films.