This week’s pick is the John Carpenter exploitation classic Assault on Precinct 13 that stars Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, and Carpenter regular Charles Cyphers. Before Carpenter hit it big two years later in 1978 with the critically acclaimed financial blockbuster Halloween, his first commercial attempt came with Assault on Precinct 13.
Carpenter was a graduate of USC film school and had recently shot the now cult classic Dark Star which failed to give the young idealistic filmmaker the big break he was hoping for. Carpenter went looking for financial backers and found the CKK Corporation of Philadelphia, PA who gave Carpenter carte blanche to make whatever kind of film he wanted.
Carpenter hoped to make a Howard Hawks inspired western much like El Dorado or Rio Lobo. Due to funds in the range of only one hundred thousand dollars, Carpenter changed his mind and decided to make an action exploitation film instead.
Assault on Precinct 13 is a very gritty, frighteningly realistic choreographed action thriller that shows a lot of the signature Carpenter we have grown to love over the last forty years. His use of lighting techniques in the film would be re-created in several films in a row like Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York, and The Thing.
The premise of the film is a simple formula. A street gang’s members are brutally ambushed by the police and killed. The following morning, a group of the gang’s ringleaders who call themselves Street Thunder make a blood oath and declare war on the police and Los Angeles. To make matters worse, the gang who are now able to put their plans into effect stole a large cache of automatic weapons.
The film primarily takes place in the Anderson section of LA. Lt. Ethan Bishop (Stoker) is a CHP assigned to oversee the final hours of operation of the Anderson police precinct that has been relocated to another neighborhood. A skeleton crew of two officers and two secretaries mans the precinct. Bishop settles in for what seems to be a routine evening, but things are far from routine as events unfold which will turn the precinct into a fortified stronghold.
The members of Street Thunder who have made a blood oath begin to target civilians in their attempt to create chaos and disorder in Anderson. Two such victims are the driver of an ice cream truck, and a little girl who is shot in the chest with an M-16 rifle from one of the vicious street thugs. The father goes after the gang and successfully kills the one responsible for his daughter’s death. The remaining members chase the man toward the Anderson precinct.
There are several side stories throughout the film and Carpenter does a very good job interweaving them all together to help create AOP 13. The father is in shock and is unable to tell Bishop and the others what has happened to him. At the same time a prison bus with several prisoners in transit stops off at the precinct to get one of the prisoners medical attention.
Among the prisoners is the notorious Napoleon Wilson (Joston) who is on his way to death row. Bishop tells the prison officer Starker (Cyphers) that the precinct is not operational and that they need to go elsewhere. Starker informs Bishop that they need to contact a doctor and that they’ll only be there for a short while. Within a matter of minutes, the several dozen members of Street Thunder open up on the police precinct killing the prison guards, the sick prisoner, the bus driver, and one of the precinct officers.
A hail of bullets rips through the station and the fire is muffled with silencers on the weapons. The phone lines and power is cut and the staff and new inmates of the jail must defend themselves against the onslaught of gang members who will stop at nothing to kill them all.
Austin Stoker’s character is believable as an ordinary man placed in extraordinary circumstances. He is a levelheaded hero who doesn’t fall to pieces while finding out a solution to the problem. Darwin Joston who plays Wilson is a great mixture of many of Hawk’s heroes and posses a sense of dry wit and sarcasm much like Carpenter’s second most iconic character of Snake Plissken from Escape From New York fame. When faced with death and numerous attacks, Wilson can only ask if anyone has a smoke.
Laurie Zimmer who plays Leigh is the heroine of the film who is tough fibered and doesn’t come apart when it’s apparent that they are all facing death. She is a second voice of reason throughout the film and isn’t afraid to speak her mind in a room filled with a lot of machismo. Like Hawk’s films, the heroes make a valiant stand and triumph at the end of the film when the cavalry comes to the rescue.
Much of the film’s camera techniques and lighting would be the norm for many of Carpenter’s films. The majority of the film was shot at night and the sense of isolation in a sparsely populated neighborhood gives the real sense of isolation and a feeling of abandonment.
My favorite scene in the film is during the first attack on the precinct and the barrage of bullets that tears through the station. After the three minutes of continuous gunfire, the gang waits in the shadows and attempt to attack when the defenders least expect it. One of the secretaries wonders why no one heard anything and Bishop tells her that they are using silencers that will make it difficult for anyone nearby to determine where the gunfire is coming from. These scenes remind me of the British soldiers of Rorke’s Drift who repel the several Zulu attacks from Zulu (1964). So things appear to be normal, the gang erases any evidence of their crimes by carrying away the dead prison guards and the dead cop on the front lawn of the precinct.
Assault on Precinct 13 didn’t favor very well with audiences in the U.S. but it immediately gained a huge following in England and Europe where it was hailed as a masterpiece. Today, the film is considered one of the best action films of the 1970s and holds high praises from many critics, and directors who were inspired by it. Director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World) and actor/writer Simon Pegg are die-hard fans of the film and have sited several of the film’s scenes in several of their collaborations together.
Pegg had this to say about the film. “You wouldn’t really call it an action film because it was a pre-the evolution of that kind of film. And yet it is kind of an action film in a way.” Edgar Wright said, “It’s very much his [Carpenter’s] kind of urban western. In a way it is staging Rio Bravo set up in downtown 70s LA…And the other thing is, for a low budget film particularly, it looks great.”
Assault on Precinct 13 is available on DVD and Blu-Ray disc through Image Home Entertainment and can be rented thru Netflix.