Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)Synopsis: Isolated, cut off. Inside an abandoned police station, a handful of cops and some convicts on their way to Death Row must join forces and defend themselves against the gang called Street Thunder, who have taken a bloody oath to destroy.

From the director or Halloween and The Thing, Assault on Precinct 13 combines elements of classic western and modern thrill to create a cult favorite, one of John Carpenter’s very best films.

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Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) 8.0

eyelights: the leisurely pace and build-up. the concept. the score.
eyesores: the sequence of the father chasing the hoods.

John Carpenter is one of those directors whose reputation I feel is larger than warranted. While it’s hard to dispute the quality of ‘Halloween‘ and ‘The Thing’, his overall output has largely been inconsistent, given to middling or subpar results. And while he’s tackled interesting concepts in his films (ex: ‘Escape from New York’, ‘Starman‘, ‘In the Mouth of Madness’) one often gets the sense that they could have been something more.

Thankfully, ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ is one of the good Carpenter films. In fact, it falls somewhere in his top 5 – if not top 3, depending on your perspective.

What makes it work is the simplicity of its plot combined with the make-do attitude that almost only comes with youth. In creating ‘Assault at Precinct 13’ (which was originally called ‘The Anderson Alamo’, but was renamed by the distributor), Carpenter intended to make a movie of the likes of ‘Night of the Living Dead‘ and ‘Rio Bravo’, a modern stand-off picture with his protagonists on the inside of a police station and the antagonists sieging them.

Most of the picture takes place in Precinct 9, District 13 (the distributors made a mistake when picking their title!), but our film takes its time setting the stage, introducing us to our characters and converging them at the station before the crisis finally hits. It’s an effective approach because it gives the audience a feel for them, giving insight into their personalities and providing some minor background info.

It also takes on the role of a “calm before the storm”. And, when it hits, the fan is full of it.

The moment that the police station is visited by a distraught father who has just killed his daughter’s murderer, things go downhill. The few occupants of the police station, which is in the process of being moved to another location, are a handful of police officers, convicts and staff. So when all of gangland descends upon them, there’s really nowhere to go and almost nothing for them to do – all they can do is try to survive.

I have to give Carpenter credit for the way that he built up and sustained the suspense in what could otherwise have been a cheesefest. Aside from the chase between the father and the hood who killed his young daughter, it holds up quite nicely – it seems thought out, relatively plausible. And Carpenter always finds new ways to create tension, adding one hurdle after the next and forcing his characters to face them – or die trying.

What’s great is that, since we don’t really have an attachment to any of the characters and only one of them is immediately shown off as heroic, we don’t really know what kind of group dynamics to expect, who will be a good guy, who will be a bad guy, who will live, who will die. Unlike ‘Night of the Living Dead’, the lines are blurred and we can’t really see notable differences between the characters’ moral compasses. But, while this limits attachment, it also opens up the possibilities.

In ‘Night of the Living Dead’, we knew that the boisterous, selfish  guy was fated to die. We didn’t know how, but we knew why: he was a prick bastard. In ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, even the bad guy has some redeeming qualities. We don’t know how much he can be trusted, but we get the sense that he’s not all bad. Similarly, the good guys don’t seem so pristine that they couldn’t falter along the way. In this sense, the film makes its protagonists more human, less archetypes. At least, slightly.

The film was made on a mere 100K, was shot in 20 days, and it shows. But, to be perfectly honest, it doesn’t require much more – much like ‘Night of the Living Dead’ didn’t. Or any movie that has a good script and a creative director at the helm, really. So, while it feels cheap, it rarely looks like they cut corners, something which is the death of any low-budget film. ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ manages quite well with the elements that it has: a handful of primary cast, a bunch of extras, a police station, and darkness.

Who needs anything more, really?

Well, the picture is especially lucky to also have a few decent actors on board as well as the versatile John Carpenter at the helm. Austin Stoker provides a quiet dignity and confidence to Lieutenant Bishop, making of him the undisputed hero of the piece. Meanwhile, Laurie Zimmer gives voice to Leigh, one of the police station’s few leftover staff; she wasn’t fantastic, but she had a great presence. As for Carpenter, aside from his sure hand, he made himself felt throughout with his brilliant if repetitive electronic score, supporting the tension.

One could easily say that ‘Assault at Precinct 13’ would have benefitted from a finer script, and more production cash, but it likely wouldn’t have made a substantially better picture. It would probably have elevated this well-conceived b-movie into the big leagues, but it then may not have found its audience – and it most certainly wouldn’t have become the cult classic that it is now.

So would it have been better off? Not necessarily. Besieged by numerous limitations, ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ nonetheless stands its ground and delivers a taut action/thriller picture that leaves a mark. It really does have its moments. And I highly doubt that its 2005 remake, featuring Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne, will be able to say the same.

Although, truth be told, I’m now curious enough to find out.

Someday.

Date of viewing: March 4, 2013

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