In John Carpenter's 1976 feature Assault On Precinct 13, Austin Stoker plays Lieutenant Ethan Bishop who is sent into the tough Los Angeles neighborhood of Anderson to watch over a police precinct on its last night of active duty. As the precinct is relocating, it's more or less empty except for a receptionist named Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), a switchboard operator named Julie (Nancy Loomis) and a random cop or two. Things start of calmly enough, no one is really expecting much to happen and things are winding down as you'd expect. Soon enough, a prison transport bus shows up. It seems a few officers were bringing some hoods, most notably Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Johnson) to death row but one of the inmates got sick and the cops don't want anyone else getting contaminated. After a bit of humming and hawing over all of this, Bishop lets the officers lock up the inmates in the precinct's holding cells.
Meanwhile, not too far away, a man makes a call at a payphone while his young daughter (popular child actress Kim Richards) buys an ice cream cone from an ice cream truck. She gets the wrong flavor and heads back just as a street gang is robbing the driver. They gang shoot the girl dead and the father finds the gun that the driver stashed under the dashboard and gives chase. He catches up to them and shoots the assailant down but quickly gets out of there, followed by the remaining gangsters. When he spots the police station across the street, he heads inside to save his own skin but is so taken aback by what he's just gone through that he can't even really begin to describe to Bishop what's happened. From here, the gangsters lay siege to the precinct, using silencers so as not to draw too much attention to their assault, while the survivors hole up inside knowing full well that they are not only outmanned, but outgunned as well…
Assault On Precinct 13 shows John Carpenter wearing his love of John Ford and Howard Hawks directed westerns plainly on his sleeve. Shot under the working title of The Anderson Alamo this is basically a western movie transplanted to Los Angeles, and the comparisons to the ‘good guys' protecting their ‘Alamo' (meaning the precinct) are pretty easy to make and pretty apt that that. This isn't a particularly complicated story but it is told well and affords Carpenter the opportunity to craft some clever scenes of genuine suspense. Here the director shows expert control over mood and pace, letting us get to know the main characters with some quick but effective dialogue exchanges and establishing enough individual personalities amongst the group to let us like them. From here, once the child murder takes place (a scene that still packs quite a punch even by modern standards), the assault builds to a wonderfully tense conclusion in which Carpenter is able to stage some impressive action set pieces. He may not be reinventing the wheel here, but he does what he does very well in this picture.
The performances are pretty strong here as well. Austin Stoker has that leading man charisma and likeability to him in this role that serves it well and which allows him to carry the picture. He's quick on the draw but also uses his smarts to do what he can to lead the survivors in what quickly escalates into a pretty dire situation. Darwin Johnson is also strong here. His character is a little more blunt than Stoker's, he is convict after all, but once his character is established through a little bit of humor early on, we want him to make it out of this alive. He develops a somewhat begrudgingly cooperative relationship with Stoker that is the backbone of the last half of the film but so too does he warm up to Laurie Zimmer, who is both attractive and likeable in her role. Nancy Loomis isn't given quite as much material to work with as the other leads but she plays her part well, relaying some effective work here and convincing us that her character really and truly is terrified about what's happening to them. The cast all shine here, they deliver very fine work.
Ultimately, while Carpenter would move on to bigger and in some ways better pictures shortly after this was made (Halloween would be up next) this one remains a high point in his filmography. He would stretch his wings a bit in terms of scope but Assault On Precinct 13 remains an expertly made and beautifully tense picture well worth revisiting.
Scream Factory brings Assault On Precinct 13 to Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 2.35.1 widescreen. For the most part, this is a pretty solid transfer, though you can't help but notice a brief scene about an hour into the movie when Leigh goes into the holding cell area where the brightness looks way off. It's odd, because it really sticks out against the rest of the movie, which shows pretty strong color reproduction and good contract. Outside of that issue, there are some spots where the blacks look a little lighter than you might want but these are few and far between and overall the black levels are just fine. Detail is quite good throughout the presentation and there weren't any obvious issues with edge enhancement to note. The film's grainy aesthetic doesn't appear to have been smoothed over, thankfully, while texture looks good. This is a very nice transfer overall, with good color reproduction and pretty strong texture as well.
English language DTS-HD Master Audio tracks are provided in 5.1 and 2.0 Mono. Optional closed captioning is provided in English only. Purists will opt for the mono option and likely be quite pleased with the results. It's a ‘true to form' track that offers crisp and clear dialogue and properly balanced levels without any audible hiss or distortion. Those same qualities apply to the 5.1 mix as well, but here the surround channels really open up the score in nice ways and do some decent directional placement with the sound effects to create a surprisingly immersive experience that doesn't feel like it's going against the style the picture's mid-seventies roots at all. Both of these options sound good but the 5.1 remix here works surprisingly well.
Carried over from the previous special edition release of the film is a strong commentary track with John Carpenter in which he shares some great stories about shooting this film. This was a fairly early film for him and so it's interesting to hear him look back on this part of his career as he discusses the locations, the script, staging some of the action scenes and working with the various cast and crew members on the project. This is a great mix of the technical and the anecdotal and if you haven't heard it before, it's definitely worth listening to.
Also carried over from that disc is an Interview With John Carpenter and Austin Stoker that was shot in 2002 and which runs twenty-three minutes. It covers some of the same ground as the commentary does but having Stoker's involvement helps to give this one enough of its own slant to definitely make it worth checking out. The Isolated score, the Theatrical Trailer and the radio spots from the previous disc are found here as well.
There are a few new extras here though, starting with Bishop Under Siege which is an exclusive interview with Austin Stoker, different from the one carried over in which he talks with Carpenter. This new one runs just under eight minutes and it allows him to reflect on the picture. There's also a bit here called The Sassy One which is an exclusive thirteen minute long interview with Nancy Loomis Kyes. She talks about how she got to know Carpenter, how and why she was cast in some of his projects and why she got out of acting along with what she's been up to since she left the business. She also expresses her admiration and appreciation for the fans that she meets at conventions. Last but not least, we also get a new audio commentary with art director and sound effects editor Tommy Lee Wallace moderated by Mike Felsher. As someone who worked with Carpenter both before and after this particular film, he's able to offer up some interesting stories about his relationship with the man and what it's been like collaborating on pictures together over the years. He also shares some great information about the sets that were used for this picture, the epic feel of the film, the merits of simplicity when it comes to sound design and his thoughts on the picture as a whole. It's a good track, no shortage of information is relayed and it's paced quite well.
Animated menus, chapter stops and a still gallery round out the package and this release comes with reversible cover art featuring the original one sheet on one side and the newly designed illustrated cover on the other side.
This Blu-ray release reissue of John Carpenter's Assault On Precinct 13 offers up the film with impressive audio and video and a pretty extensive array of extra features as well, carrying over everything from the past release and throwing in some new supplements as well. The movie itself still holds up very well, a great example of Carpenter in his prime doing more with a low budget than most filmmakers were ever capable of. Some solid performances and impressive action set pieces don't hurt either, and this disc comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.