Assault on Precinct 13 Reviews
Inspired by 'Rio Bravo' and almost any other old western really, this stand off thriller is one of Carpenter's best films for me. Again the plot is very basic but executed so well. A group of men, mainly police and convicts and a couple women are holed up in a defunct police station as a large gang of thugs lay siege outside. Your typical last stand against the bad guys.
What works (like other old films) is the fact there isn't lots of fancy ass camera angles, huge explosions, tarty gun play and slow motion. Everything is created real time and with as much flare and creativity as possible, this always (well mostly) works out for the better visuals wise.
I admit there are few sequences which do look rather hokey these days, when the hoodlums attack the station via the windows they don't seem to work out that's an easy way to get blown away. The final showdown involving an explosion isn't very glorious truth be told but its still acceptable.
Hardly violent a tall watching today but back in the day there was a huff over one scene where a kid is shot virtually point blank. I can see why as it is a cold little sequence but these small quirks make you chuckle these days, adds spice to the film when you look out for the infamous bits.
The cast really help this film it must be said. Was never really meant to do anything money wise methinks, or suppose to be classic film making but the cast really juiced up the film to cult status. Stand out players easily being Stoker as the loan cop, all that's left after the initial bloodshed.
His stoic stern calm manner is the perfect leader, the perfect hero standing for what's right and true. Alongside him is Joston as the gruff tough ice cool convict who becomes Stoker's close ally. Joston's performance may be hammy by today's standards but its the perfect foil and is typical of many old classic western tough guys...'got a smoke?'
For a film that plays out within the small confines of a few rooms the tension is solid, you wanna see what's gonna happen. Not much happening outside accept for the odd shot of hoods running around, action is small, fast and quick whilst visuals are enough to get the job done.
The story, basically a loose remake of/riffage on Rio Bravo, concerns a rookie cop and a small number of people trapped in a soon to be closed police station, and forced to fight off a massive gang of criminals out to wage war and get revenge. That's pretty much it.
Despite the low budget, the film has some decent performances, a catchy score, some humor, and (probably best of all) a tremendous sense of mood, atmosphere, tension, and suspense. This is a gritty and gripping little yarn, and you really start to feel for the characters and want them to come out on top. Plus, this movie has some major balls thanks to the infamous "ice cream scene", and it still has the power to unsettle and shock due to how cold-blooded it is.
A remake came out a few years ago, and, while that one had it's moments, it didn't have the same charm or low-budget indie brilliance of this one. Stick to this one.
It would be easy to look at Assault on Precinct 13 as a classic case of the difficult second album - a great talent dropping the ball when given more money and a big reputation. But while this comment may be true of some Carpenter films - like Big Trouble in Little China - it does not take the context into account. The reputation of Dark Star, as a cult hit and bona fide sci-fi classic, leads us to believe that its success was premeditated, and that Carpenter was destined for greatness, when in fact neither would have been the case.
When interviewed in 2002, Carpenter commented that this was the first time that he had shot for several days straight. With Dark Star, he had gotten used to shooting the odd scene, going off to raise money, coming back and repeating the process, much like David Lynch was doing with Eraserhead around the same time. It's not often that I will argue for a lowering of expectations, but anyone expecting a film with the terror of Hallowe'en or the substance of The Thing is setting themselves up for a greater disappointment than necessary. There is still some substance to Assault on Precinct 13, but it is present in a quantity and manner that we would not associate with Carpenter's more mature and competent efforts.
The film is at heart a homage to Rio Bravo, Howard Hawks' western starring John Wayne and Dean Martin, which Hawks himself subsequently remade, first as El Dorado and later as Rio Lobo. There are in-jokes and references to Hawks' film(s) throughout, from the fast-paced dialogue during the siege of the police station right down to the end credits: the editor is named as 'John T. Chance', with the name of John Wayne's character serving as a pseudonym for Carpenter.
Although it is at heart a western, Assault on Precinct 13 is also positioned as a Blaxploitation film, due to its black protagonist and theme of gang warfare. It is cashing in on the Blaxploitation genre in the same way that the Bond series had done so with Live and Let Die three years earlier. While Carpenter's film is a lot more gritty and realistic than Bond (not to mention shorter and somewhat darker), it is still riding the crest of someone else's wave. This is again not surprising considering the circumstances under which it was made, but taken in the context of Carpenter's back catalogue, it is hardly his most original work.
There are, however, a number of aspects to Assault on Precinct 13 which would become classic Carpenter motifs. The evil force which terrorises the police station (in this case the Street Thunder gang) is portrayed as something relentless and borderline supernatural. Carpenter was a huge fan of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, and characterises the gang like zombies, watching our heroes intently and always moving as one. When shooting the showdowns between police and gang members, Carpenter roped in a lot of film students from USC, who relished in the opportunity to play with fake blood and provided him with many inventive screen deaths.
Another motif of Carpenter's is to shoot the action entirely in widescreen (or occasionally anamorphic). Audiences then and now tended to associate widescreen with expensive films, so to shoot Assault in Precinct 13 in this way would have got the film notice for appearing relatively professional. Carpenter's composition of exterior shots, such as the advance of the gang members, indicates that he understands how to shoot in this format, filling every possible part of the frame with something visually exciting.
Unfortunately, one of the big problems with Assault on Precinct 13 is another common trait in Carpenter's work. The pacing of the opening act is very slow, as the film takes the best part of 30 minutes to decide in which exact direction it wishes to proceed. With Carpenter's later efforts, like Escape from New York, it was often the case that the film would run headlong in one direction without managing to explain why or build suspense in the process. What we end up with is a film of great potential which never really gets into gear, and whose ideas are skimmed over for the sake of moving forward.
While Hawks' film was about good men standing up to outsiders to defend a town in the name of American ideals, Carpenter's film seems to be about democracy and its practical implications. During the siege the police station becomes a microcosm for society, with the criminals being isolated while the free citizens make all the decisions on their behalf as to how to survive. There is the implication that democratic governance, and by extension meritocracy, is not an adequate substitute for animal instinct when lives are at stake. While Ethan Bishop begins as an idealistic police officer, he eventually resorts to guns and fist-fighting to keep the gang out.
There is a subversive quality to the film in the depiction of the criminals. The character of Napoleon Wilson (who keeps asking for a smoke, in a further Hawks reference) is depicted as someone of equal or greater intelligence to the people holding him captive. We are constantly asking questions about his motivations and wondering whether we can trust him. When the prisoners are called upon to help defend the police station, they are forced into a quandary: they are being asked to defend an institution which is both keeping them alive and holding them hostage. The exploration of realpolitik and game theory in these scenes is pretty intelligent, which leads you to wonder how Carpenter got it so wrong when he revisited these themes in Ghosts of Mars.
Despite the intelligent examination of themes, there is still the feeling of both story and substance never really coming together. The opening section of the film is too long to pull us in quickly enough, which the actual siege is not long enough to discuss and address these ideas in the detail they deserve. You get the feeling that in the hands of someone like Irwin Allen (producer of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno), you would have cut to the chase a lot quicker, getting the characters in the tight spot quickly and keeping them there throughout. Carpenter may claim that the script came together fast, but even at 90 minutes the film could use another edit.
Then there is the issue of violence to address. Being an exploitation film, we know to expect a certain amount of fighting, bloodshot or other outbursts, and by and large these outbursts are well-executed and in keeping with the tone. The beginning of the siege, where the police station is peppered with hundreds of bullets, is particularly well-done: in the absence of real ammunition, Carpenter uses pyrotechnic charges to disturb office materials in a unnerving way. The only question mark surrounds the murder of a child; while we don't see the deed in all its graphic detail, the jury is still out over whether it is integral to the plot.
The performances in Assault on Precinct 13 are by and large a case of pleasant surprises. Due to budgetary constraints, Carpenter cast actors who were relatively unknown but prepared to work relentlessly. Austin Stoker is very convincing as Lieutenant Bishop, calmly holding up the action like a young Laurence Fishburne. Darwin Joston is very good as Wilson, bringing a laconic sense of humour and a sneering physicality. And while both their roles are underdeveloped, Laurie Zimmer and Nancy Loomis both make the most of what they have.
Assault on Precinct 13 remains a serviceable and efficient thriller-cum-western which is disappointing in light of Carpenter's subsequent success. Its ideas never take hold in the way that they should, and apart from its technical execution, there is little in it to suggest that the same man would change the face of horror movies with Hallowe'en just two years later. Carpenter fans will gravitate towards it out of nostalgia, while the rest of us will either wonder what the fuss is about or accept it for what it is: a half-decent but slightly forgettable slice of late-night viewing.
"A White Hot Night of Hate."
I wish I could say I like Assault on Precinct 13 more than I do. I like it to a certain extent, but not as much as I should. Every time I re-watch it, I expect to finally love it, but I always end up with the same feelings about it. It is an extremely cool and violent early Carpenter film and he does a good job in making an overall interesting movie. It's just not up to standards with some of his other films that he would come to make in the coming years.
The plot is interesting, a street gang in LA gets there hands on a crazy amount of weapons. A cop is back on the job and is put in a safe situation for his first night out. He takes over a police station that is getting shut down. All he has to do is answer the phone and send people to the new location. It doesn't end up being that easy though and he ends being up against a lot of gangsters with a convicted killer who is going to be executed to help him.
The film never seems to gel. It seems like it is grinding through the entire runtime instead of smoothly progressing. A lot of this comes from the characters being extremely uninteresting and showing very little emotion throughout the whole film. The actors kind of seem to just be going through the motions and never really suck you into the story.
As a pre-Halloween thriller from Carpenter, it is a pretty solid effort. It pretty much put Carpenter on the map and then Halloween solidified that he was a great director. He uses settings so well to his advantage and that's exactly what he does here. He uses a hopeless ghetto and makes the characters and viewers as helpless as the kids who are growing up there. It seems inevitable that the characters are going to die, just as it is inevitable the kids who are growing up there will soon be in the gangs that are now reeking havoc. It's just too bad the movie never rises above decent.
The lone inhabitants of an abandoned police station are under attack by the overwhelming numbers of a seemingly unstoppable street gang.
John Carpenter's 'Assault on Precinct 13' is a simplistic, low budget but very effective action movie. A group of urban terrorists decide (for no reason made clear to us) to attack a near-deserted police station (actually in Precinct 9), and that's about it for plot; nor is the acting superb. But for tense atmospherics this film is close to unbeatable, aided by the proto-techno score written by Carpenter himself. Worth watching, especially in these days of formulaic action films that start with a big bang, end with a bigger one and carry the guarantee that the hero won't get killed. Carpenter, by contrast, throws away the screenwriters' rule book, and also dispenses with sentiment and spectacle; but the result has you on the edge of your seat. A limited film, but a good one nonetheless.
Napolean Wilson: I'll tell you some time.
Lt. Ethan Bishop: When will you tell me?
[the street gang breaks through the barricade and rush at Bishop and Wilson]
Napolean Wilson: Make that in a minute or two!
One thing I generally like about John Carpenter films is how they rely on simplicity. His plots are never overly complicated, characters are never too deep, and build up is a big theme in his films. The man knows how to make good B-movies.
Here you have a low budget thriller about a ghetto district in LA. Recently some gangs have gotten a hold of a lot of weapons and have put out a blood oath, or "Cholo," against the city.
Meanwhile you have a bus containing a few prisoners, including one tough bastard known as Wilson, on their way to another jail, but are forced to stop at a police precinct that is supposed to be closed. It is in fact going to be closed in the morning, but is for now being looked after by a rookie cop who is in for one hell of a night.
Leigh: The very least of our problems is that we're out of time.
Wilson: It's an old story with me. I was born out of time.
After an event involving a civilian vs gang members, the gangs decide to launch a siege on the police precinct, forcing the cops and cons to team up and hope to survive.
The movie consists of one liners, low budget action, some goofy moments, and a repetitive but neat theme by Carpenter and true to his form.
The film never elevates to anything really special, but it still provides some entertainment.
Napoleon Wilson: Still have the gun?
Leigh: Two shots. Should I save them for the two of us?
Napoleon Wilson: Save 'em for the first two assholes who come through that vent.
A group of criminals are being transported to another prison when one of them becomes seriously ill. They decide to stop at the local Police Station to lock up the prisoners and see if they can help the man. However, the Station they stop at is closing down and there is only one cop and a couple of secretaries inside. The prisoners are locked up, including Napolean Wilson- a notorious murderer, while the cops decide what to do. The power has been cut off, but people will be coming in the morning to finally close the place. Night has just fallen. Meanwhile a man in a frantic state runs into the station but won't say what has happened, falling into a comatose state. The Station suddenly comes under attack, and looking outside it seems that hundreds of gang members with guns have started a war with the those inside. With no help and only a few weapons, the survivors- cop, criminals, secretaries must work together to stay alive, and perhaps try to find a way out.
The two male leads of Stoker as the cop, and Joston as Napolean are both brilliant in the roles, unknown faces adding the the sense of uncertainty. Joston delivers his few lines with cool and even though he is a bad guy, he naturally becomes our favourite character. Stoker tries to hold everything together as the law, but realises this will not work. Zimmer is also strong as Leigh, delivering her lines almost passively or vacantly, almost as if she isn't there, but we sense the chemistry between her and Napolean. Burton, West, Cyphers and Loomis also do well in smaller parts, and all the cast deserved to go on to bigger parts. Carpenter creates massive tension again, the faceless enemy always outside, innumerable and even though there are cars going past and houses nearby, the gang is silent and deadly in their pursuit, ensuring that help will come. The guns with silencers are used to good effect, with papers spurting up into the air quietly meaning the cops sometimes do not even know they are being shot at.
The dialogue is minimal, every character has little to say as they all seem annoyed with each other, having to work together, dealing with the situation with no time for pointless chatter which fills other movies. The lighting adds to the tone, everything is shaded, we can only catch glimpses of the gang outside and in, and the score by Carpenter is another modern classic along with his Halloween theme. The deaths are both quiet and shocking- we don't see what happens to Loomis, while the ice cream van part would have taken great bravery to even dream of filming- there hasn't really been anything like it since. Once again Carpenter makes a brilliant film, and while he would soon go on to make bigger box-office smashes, this one stands on its own as the benchmark of low-budget film-making.