John Carpenter: The Collection: Assault On Precinct 13 Review
In his recent review of The Warriors, Gary Couzens quite rightly put forward the idea that while Walter Hill's urban nightmare could have been very frightening in its time, age has not been kind to it. The Warriors makes the claim that these gangs number 100,000 and that they, "could run New York City!" Well, they could but it's hard to see how the people of New York would take to a city government dressed as mimes, wearing top hats or as baseball players who have passed through the ranks of Kiss. Or to have debates on tax increases or road traffic planning end with a, "Can you dig it?" Time may not be a friend of Hill's film but he also lets his audience know something of his gangs. In Assault On Precinct 13, John Carpenter avoids doing just that. And his gang members are all the more terrifying because of it.
Time has been kind to Assault On Precinct 13, the first movie John Carpenter turned to after the release of his student film, Dark Star. Being too young at the time of this film's release to pay attention to what Carpenter might have said as regards Howard Hawks before the release of this film, he's more than made up for it since. And rather than cover up the similarities, Carpenter makes much of the debt that Assault On Precinct 13 owes to Hawks' Rio Bravo. Without the larger-than-life figure of a John Wayne, Carpenter casts Austin Stoker as Ethan Bishop, a cop posted to a station in Precinct 9 on the eve of it being shut down. Assigned by his captain to babysit the station for its last night, Bishop expects to do little more than turn off the lights in the morning and close the door behind him as he leaves. But elsewhere in South Central LA, the Street Thunder gang have stolen a vast quantity of automatic weapons and are planning on taking revenge against the LAPD SWAT team who gunned down six of their members.
In the Anderson Ghetto, four members of the Street Thunder gang fatally wound an ice-cream vendor and murder a little girl in a drive-by shooting. Her father, Lawson, gives chase, holding tight to a gun found underneath the dashboard of the ice-cream van. Catching up, he shoots one of the gang dead, emptying the chamber into his body. Elsewhere, a prison transport bus need a safe place to stay while one of the inmates is treated for an illness. Starker (Charles Cyphers), the prison officer in charge of the transport operation, tells his driver to look out for a safe place to hold up for the night. Inside the police station in Precinct 9, Bishop expects a quiet night and is unconcerned about spending the night with another police officer and the two station secretaries, Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and Julie (Nancy Loomis). But then Starker's bus arrives and he asks that Bishop make available his holding cells. Through the front door comes Lawson, on the run from the Street Thunder gang and looking for shelter. Soon after, the police station in Precinct 9 is under siege. Cut off from the rest of the LAPD, Bishop, with few people and even fewer weapons, must defend his station.
Albeit that Assault On Precinct 13 does indeed owe much to Rio Bravo, which Mike Sutton explains more fully in his review of the film (see left), it's clearly a John Carpenter film, complete with all the bloodshed that that suggests. Hawks' villains, for example, would not have indulged in the bloodletting with which Carpenter's Street Thunder seal their feud against the LAPD. You also feel that, regardless of the censorship of his era, Hawks would have had little time for the cheap gag of Carpenter's little girl complaining of a lack of strawberry sauce in her vanilla ice cream, only for the front of her dress to become splattered in her own blood. However, Carpenter strips the notion of what a Hawksian film entails down to its very essence for Assault On Precinct 13. His men are resourceful and no matter the danger that surrounds them, not only look like heroes but sound like them too. They may not be quite the match of the soldiers of The Thing From Another World for an ability to laugh in the face of certain death, although few could, but Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) is always ready with a, "Gotta smoke?" as the gunfire dies down. It becomes not only his refrain but also his way of assuring those around him that, for the moment at least, the danger has passed.
It's that sense of danger that becomes what is best and most memorable about Assault On Precinct 13. For all the dozens of gang members who are shot and killed by Stoker and his makeshift cops, not one of them says so much as a word. Instead, they are the urban nightmare that Walter Hill promised but never delivered. Heavily armed and as relentless as the creature in Carpenter's later The Thing or Michael Myers in Halloween, they just keep on coming, attacking several times, being forced back but always coming forward. For all those that Stoker shoots, a dozen more take their place with each glimpse outside of the station showing yet more gathering in the shadows. Even with a career that includes Halloween, The Thing and The Fog, Assault On Precinct 13 is one of the most unsettling of Carpenter's films, be it in the gang members sitting silently cradling their weapons before their killing spree begins, in their cold-blooded murder of a young girl or their circling of the police station. Carpenter makes their assaults simply terrifying.
It's not, though, as good a film as Rio Bravo but then few are. There's a warmth to Hawks' film that Carpenter's lacks. Similarly, Hawks finds the time for a great number of asides in his story, whereas Carpenter, having stripped his film to the bone, deviates not an inch from the Street Thunder gang preparing for the siege and the assault itself. So, a different film, then, but it remains a great one. And with time having been so kind to it, it remains as entertaining and thrilling a film now as it has ever been.
Anamorphically presented in 2.35:1, Carpenter makes good use of the full frame. Assault On Precinct 13 would be a very different film had it been panned-and-scanned, as it probably was on VHS (including a version of the film given away free with, what was it, Neon magazine?) but, here, Carpenter allows his camera to frame the action such that his characters look as ready for action as is implied in their brusque dialogue. However, that's not to say that it looks that good on DVD. The picture is clear enough for the most part but there are a lot of faults on the print, some of which is present as white spots, others just bits of dirt. The worst example comes with Starker's arrival at the precinct station, with two consecutive frames that look as though they were cut into (below).
The only audio option is a Dual DD2.0 Mono and it's generally pretty good. The famous score, which you might well have heard sampled in some hip-hop tracks and videogames (Bomb The Bass's Megablast amongst them), sounds great, particularly on the Street Thunder gang's way to the shootout at the ice-cream truck but it carries the dialogue and audio effects just as well. There is also an isolated music score but no subtitles.
Q&A With John Carpenter (23m07s): The actual content of this Q&A is fine. Unfortunately, it's the presentation that lets it down. In this, Carpenter appears onstage beside Austin Stoker, filmed at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood in 2002. Much of Carpenter's answers do dwell on Assault On Precinct 13 but he does mention other films of his in passing. He also offers a very welcome glimpse at how he went about making his film, not only in his setting up the action (and actors) but in his use of Panavision and the problems that came with it and in the instruments that he used in scoring the movie. The problem, though, is that this was filmed from a position in the audience with a camcorder. It's in focus so long as it is zoomed in on Carpenter but, otherwise, tends to drift out of focus on wide shots. It also tends to drift around its subjects quite a bit and, at one point, gets switched off. Still, look past that and what Carpenter has to say and the questions he's asked are interesting.
Commentary: Carpenter is on his own for this track and while it's good enough, it's not a patch on those where he has someone to work off such as Kurt Russell (on The Thing). But Carpenter is still head and shoulders above many others when it comes to commentaries and while he does leave some gaps in his track, he also talks in detail about his step up to shooting this off this student film Dark Star, about the influence that Hawks had on the film and about the limitations of the production, such as why the cast don't just go upstairs to wait it out and how Carpenter tries to explain this with dialogue. Still an interesting track but it would have been very much better had it been a Carpenter and Stoker recording.
Production History (16m54s): This features pages of text explaining the production in between behind-the-scenes shots of the same, stills taken from the script and storyboards. The most interesting section of this feature is near the end where it shows news clippings from the UK, where it became much more of a success than it was in the US, and in Carpenter's reaction to how European audiences reacted to it so differently.
Finally, there are two Radio Spots (32s and 33s) and a very scratchy Original Theatrical Trailer (2m04s).