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Assault on Precinct 13
Savant Blu-ray Review

Assault on Precinct 13
Image / CKK Corporation
1976 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 91 min. / Restored Collector's Edition / Street Date December 2, 2008 / $29.98
Starring Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Martin West, Tony Burton, Charles Cyphers, Nancy Kyes, Peter Bruni
Cinematography Douglas Knapp
Art Direction Tommy Wallace
Film Editor John Carpenter (John T. Chance)
Original Music John Carpenter
Written by and
Produced by J. Stein Kaplan, Joseph Kaufman
Written and Directed by John Carpenter

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Assault on Precinct 13 comes to Blu-ray, complete with all the extras of the New Special Edition from 2003. Are you listening, Universal?

John Carpenter is perhaps the least ambitious of the 'weaned on television' wave of 1970s film students that became film directors, but in many ways he's the most natural. In his first few films he proved expert at creating no-budget entertainments that galvanized audiences better than the expensive shows Hollywood was putting out. Carpenter out-did the studios with a tiny horror film in the late 70s, upsetting the balance of power at the box office and instigating a new wave of upscale exploitation production.

Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter's first 'real' movie, is a cleverly concocted pastiche of older films and attitudes that the director obviously believed in. Critics of the film school generation made fun of directors that only knew old movies, but Carpenter at least understood the appeal of his favorites. A violent retelling of Rio Bravo, but with street gangs that behave like zombies from Night of the Living Dead, this is A+ exploitation material circa 1976.

The Anderson Police Precinct in South Central L.A. is closing, and is in a vague transition period. Even the cops who work there don't know if they're technically open for business. Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) reports to the mostly dismantled station and strikes up a friendship with clerk Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) just as a prisoner transport bus makes an emergency stop carrying the notorious convicted killer Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) and the likewise shackled Wells (Tony Burton). It's the wrong night for everyone. Within minutes a man stumbles in shock through the door, and Anderson falls under siege by a horde of rifle toting gang members. Cut off from all communication, with the rest of the L.A.P.D. thinking the station is shut down, Bishop must risk arming his dangerous prisoners if anyone's going to survive the night.

Assault on Precinct 13 is such a faithful imitation of a Howard Hawks film, it's surprising that 70s audiences would accept it. The picture either avoids dialogue or limits it to a bare minimum of laconic retorts, opting instead to get on with the story. Carpenter's dialogue is often weak, but the many moments that do work generate an atmosphere that audiences like -- the classic Hawksian professional fraternity.

Carpenter is aces when it comes to building tension and interest with a bare minimum of resources. A leisurely half-hour is spent setting up the story, with only the promise of a barely-established gang threat to maintain our attention. Carpenter generates an impressive "wilderness" feeling for the streets, even in broad daylight; his movie presumes a paranoid attitude toward urban violence (already going strong in 1976) and a feeling that the authorities are barely in control. That's pretty good for a film that only has a couple of cars and a few half-empty streets to work with. Times have changed, but in 1976 Carpenter's shocking murder of a child early on made Assault seem like an exercise in bloody chaos. From then on we're ready for almost anything.

The atmosphere inside the precinct house is 100% Howard Hawks-macho. Laurie Zimmer's Leigh supports the Hawks macho ethic almost single-handedly. She walks slow, smiles with bedroom eyes like Lauren Bacall, and takes a shoulder wound as calmly as Joanne Dru in Red River. Carpenter has wisely kept things simple -- much of the film is played out in single shots, carefully storyboarded and composed. The camera tends to move only in masters, and then it prowls.

Darwin Joston is barely adequate in the acting department but his straight, deadpan delivery works most of the time. There's a surfeit of cigarette talk, as in Hawks' films. Assault on Precinct 13 validates the old Hawks formula by making us care about the relationship between Wilson and Leigh. Carpenter only shows weakness when he quotes names from Ford and Peckinpah, and when he has Wilson lift an entire dialogue passage from Once Upon a Time in the West: "Not until the point of dyin'."

The movie soldiers on despite a visible dearth of production values. The shootouts are all created through cutaways to single shots. The extended blasting of the squad room, papers and bullets flying in what in 1976 seemed to be endless overkill, is almost all second-unit work. It's likely that Carpenter storyboarded the entire film, as his action blocking is simple and clean. He keeps the menace boiling with a minimum of real gore. And when he's funny, he's funny. Napoleon and Bishop's last-ditch defense barrier is a metal sign they pull from the side of the hall ... reading "Support Your Local Police".

As a siege fantasy, Carpenter's concept is still basic exploitation. Eventually, the story boils down to a lot of classy Magnificent 7-- type posing and shooting, rugged heroes against a faceless fantasy foe. The absurd multi-racial gang is a barely-coherent amalgam of extremists, with black, white and Latin-American members; one leader is costumed identically to Che Guevara, just for effect. The intention must be to create an all-purpose Boogeyman enemy, like Scorpio in Dirty Harry, who incorporates contradictory counterculture qualities.

Carpenter's street gang behaves identically to Hawksian Indians, complete with 'noble savage' rituals, including a "death sign" ceremony where a "Cholo" marker is left outside the target building. The name is meaningless and probably was borrowed from a popular Los Angeles Mexican restaurant! A vague menace that circles the precinct, hides and then attacks in easily decimated full-frontal charges, the gang provides lots of clean-cut action but makes little sense. Naturally, there are no messy or inconvenient casualties to look after, just corpses. After the twentieth gangbanger charges into a hallway or through a window, offering himself as an easy target, Carpenter's onslaught has to rely on convention to work. The action is really very simple - what makes the whole shebang go is style. Carpenter's last-stand hallway defense gag uses ideas cobbled from Jaws and The Thing from Another World. It easily neutralizes the mob menace.

The fantasy gang, with their perpetual silence and fetishistic weapons, was more a budget necessity than any kind of statement on Carpenter's part. A prologue scene showing a police massacre of (armed, out for trouble) gang members gives the inflammatory impression that the relationship between the L.A.P.D. and the gangs is open warfare -- a view that would probably be embraced by both cops and punks, but here is mainly a thing of plot convenience. Assault on Precinct 13 eventually bends under the strain, but not before the tyro Carpenter has established his pro credentials, first time out the gate. Mission accomplished.

Image Entertainment's Blu-ray of Assault on Precinct 13 completely eclipses old, grainy video copies. Carpenter's picture looks great in HD; it was filmed on 35mm stock and is sharp and colorful throughout. The audio track has a new 5.1 mix.

The extras from the earlier Special Edition have all been retained. Carpenter's commentary emphasizes the most important lesson he learned about filmmaking: it's exhausting! He also recognizes the un-menacing aspect of the real South Central, belatedly acknowledging that his hysterics about the area contributed to the idea that the mostly benign part of L.A. is some kind of Hell Zone.  1

Carpenter joins actor Austin Stoker for an interview at the American Cinematheque. Other extras include a trailer, a still gallery, radio spots and an isolated music track with John Carpenter's synth score. Topping it off is the film's script, entitled The Anderson Alamo, which gives us a direct sampling of Carpenter's successful scriptwriting skills.

Note: This Blu-ray came out over two months ago; I confused the street date with that of a new DVD released on February 3. Apologies to Image Entertainment!

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Assault on Precinct 13 Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good++
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: See above.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 10, 2009


1. I can remember driving at night to the Post Office Terminal Annex in South Central to mail some college transcripts that had to be postmarked before a deadline. I was ready to find the place looking like Escape from New York. It was quiet, peaceful and little different than most any other working class neighborhood. My expectations had been altered by films like Assault on Precinct 13.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson

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Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics. Also, don't forget the 2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.

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