Assault on Precinct 13. 1976. Directed & Written by John Carpenter. Starring Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Martin West, Tony Burton, Charlie Cyphers, and Nancy Kyes. Image Entertainment. Rated R. 91 minutes. Action/Crime/Thriller
★★★★ (DVD release)Assault on Precinct 13 is one of the best action thrillers of all-time. It’s probably my personal favourite if I had to pick one. John Carpenter crafts an incredibly tight story about a band of police and criminals forced to fend themselves off from a street gang who’ve taken a blood oath against the police; all the while, the rag tag gang of cops and robbers are trapped inside a near defunct precinct in an isolated area of Los Angeles. Everything is set off in the beginning after a police ambush a number of gang members, killing them, and prompts the remaining gang members to take a blood oath against the Los Angeles police force. It’s basically a siege-type film.
Carpenter has always been an open fan of the Western genre, as well as a lot of the old & great Hollywood epics because he grew up watching a lot of classic filmmakers’ films. More specifically, he’s also a huge fan of Howard Hawkes (director of such classics as the original Scarface, the William Faulkner-written The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, & more). In the audio commentary for this movie he actually talks about Hawkes in regards to the cigarette gags ongoing throughout Assault on Precinct 13; he attributes this as an homage to Hawkes who frequently did all sorts of cigarette-related gags. The reason I bring this up is because Carpenter really wrote this movie as more of a Western, but set it in the contemporary world of a ghetto-like area in Los Angeles during the 1970s. You’ve got the story of a new cop coming into town – his first day is looking like it’ll be a boring one & then suddenly he’s fighting for his life. There are a lot of little elements in Carpenter’s film which pay homage to his love for Westerns, as well as the (excellent) tropes of the genre.
I think one of the things that really amazed people when this first came out was the level of brutality Carpenter chooses to show us. By now, anybody who is either a fan of his or a movie buff has seen/heard about the infamous “Ice Cream Truck Scene” – this contains one of the more shocking images in an American film during the ’70s, no doubt about it. I don’t want to go ahead and ruin for those who haven’t yet seen Assault on Precinct 13. Just know, it is a real doozy. Even now today, after all the horror and disturbing films I’ve seen over the years (4,000 films later & counting). This scene still gets me. There’s a chilling quality to it that grips you and doesn’t let go. It also really sets the tone for these brutal gang members. Yeah, sure – we know they’re hardcore. They’ve taken a blood oath to kill all the police in Los Angeles. But to do what they do in this scene is downright savage behaviour. It really sets them apart from most killers that turn up in action-thrillers. I mean, Hans Gruber was pretty god damn bad ass, but he never killed any little girls or anything.
In the best of Carpenter’s films there is a layer of tension underneath every inch of the plot. He moves the pacing of Assault on Precinct 13 along slowly, which helps build up the suspense and tension. He does this in a few of his best movies. With this one, he makes the important move of putting the time in the corner of the screen every so often in big bold white lettering – this might seem arbitrary, but it’s not. Carpenter uses this visible clock to enhance our feelings of suspense. We watch as the gang keeps moving across Los Angeles, further towards the precinct, and we watch as those in the precinct go about their night without any knowledge of what is headed towards them. The clock continues to move, and it keeps us on the edge, guessing.
Eventually, once things start to move into the action scenes, it really works well because Carpenter throws us from a tense atmosphere into thrilling, and often pretty violent, scenes where the gang is just running the gauntlet on this rundown, ready-to-close precinct. I think Carpenter is a master at pacing. Assault on Precinct 13 is a master class in tension. Excellent work.
There are a few really iconic shots in this film. I really love the way Carpenter shot most of his films, especially the earlier work. There’s a shot nearly halfway into the movie when a man whose daughter has been murdered by the gang flees some of the members and runs to the precinct. It all starts as he stands in an isolated telephone booth. There’s nothing but the booth and the darkness looming everywhere. Carpenter gives us a nice wide shot, but tightened in a bit on the man in the booth; from behind him in the darkness suddenly appear several members of the gang, literally as if out of nowhere. It’s one of those great classic, and creepy, shots Carpenter is known for – he does this sort of thing in a few other films like Halloween and The Fog, where they are also really effective. There are a bunch of great moments where Carpenter uses the shadows, as the gang encroaches further and further onto the precinct property. It sort of kick starts the adrenaline while maintaining a slow pace. Then gradually the action ramps up and becomes more exciting. Carpenter is really one of the greats when it comes to the overall composition of a film and how smoothly things transition from one point to another.
One of the best aspects of this film is the score itself. The main theme of the film is just absolutely amazing. An excellent special feature on this DVD release from Image Entertainment is the Isolated Score from Carpenter, who did the score himself using what I’d assume to be a synthesizer. It’s really bare bones stuff, but it works for this film. There isn’t anything fancy here in the sense of ‘flash’ – anything fancy here comes from very practical means at the hands of a practical and talented director such as Carpenter. The score is perfect because it doesn’t overpower the film; it works in conjunction with the images and the pacing. It’s a great underlying layer beneath everything else, and it’s also one of those scores that will absolutely have you walking away humming. After I watch this, I always go around for a day or two humming the main theme. It’s so damn catchy. A lot of the modern retro scores you hear using synthesizer have a lot to owe to Carpenter – he made it cool to do your own low key, electronic scores. Definitely inspired more than a few filmmakers out there.
John Carpenter is one of my favourite filmmakers, and Assault on Precinct 13 is absolutely one of his best films, though it’s hard to choose a definite favourite. This is a really great exercise in suspense and tension. It’s also one of the best examples in film of action done correctly – there’s no need for a massive budget or the biggest names in Hollywood or the wildest effects ever – Carpenter proves ideas and creative execution are the main components to a successful action thriller. While a lot of action is often filmed by flashy directors, Carpenter is a more subtle and interesting filmmaker who makes unique choices, and his number one focus is how to make things look good while still being thoroughly entertaining. He’s certainly one of the best in the business. I’ll repeat that as much as possible.
This DVD release is not perfect. However, the picture is really flawless, I must say – looking forward to picking this up on Blu ray soon, too. The sound is great. Carpenter’s score comes alive on some nice speakers; the Isolated Score option is a real treat, as well. I could listen to the score over and over. Gets me pumped up. A few of the effects look especially awesome on this release. Plus, we get a good audio commentary from Carpenter. Though, I wish there were a few more bits, I’m still satisfied overall.
I really suggest any fans of action-thrillers see this original – the remake isn’t horrible, but does not do this amazingly tight film justice. The DVD release is pretty good, but I bet the Blu ray is even better. Give this a chance, as opposed to the Michael Bay flashy action stuff (not to rag on him – there are plenty others less famous than he who perpetrate the crime of glossy imagery over character and plot). You’ll really be doing yourself a favour. Soak it up – everything here is pure cinematic gold, and real old school filmmaking at its finest.