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Lean, taut and compellingly gritty, John Carpenter's loose update of Rio Bravo ranks as a cult action classic and one of the filmmaker's best.
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Lean, taut and compellingly gritty, John Carpenter's loose update of Rio Bravo ranks as a cult action classic and one of the filmmaker's best.
All Critics (42)
| Top Critics (4)
| Fresh (41)
| Rotten (1)
| DVD (11)
Hopelessly violent but exceedingly well made.
Novelty of a gang swearing a blood oath to destroy a precinct station and all inside is sufficiently compelling for the gory-minded to assure acceptance.
One of the most effective exploitation movies of the decade.
Mr. Carpenter is an extremely resourceful director whose ability to construct films entirely out of action and movement suggests that he may one day be a director to rank with Don Siegel.
A film that is unrelenting, grabbing you by the scruff of your neck and dragging you through its 90-minute run time.
...a seriously erratic early effort from an otherwise masterful filmmaker.
For all the exposition dealt out in the opening half hour, it's become an almost abstract act of violence by the end, motivations long forgotten by the attackers and survival the only thought on the minds of the dwindling survivors.
A vital moment in the career of one of cinema's most important directors and a searingly tense thriller in its own right.
Perhaps Carpenter's best film next to The Thing, this is a model of low-budget filmmaking, with a tight script, appropriately tight-lipped actors and atmospheric location shooting.
Carpenter stages the action expertly, always getting maximum impact from the moments when Precinct 13 explodes into violence.
In Assault On Precinct 13, hell is an abandoned police station in Los Angeles and the only means of survival is cooperation across racial, class, and legal lines.
A ballsy, exciting genre mash-up that still entertains and excites.
Low low budget exploitation thriller which was Carpenters first proper film after the seriously low budget sci-fi 'Dark Star'.
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.
Ok, first things first: I know this is a flawed filmed filled with lots of plot holes and errors (some of them nonsensical and unforgivable), but I love this movie. It has a lot of sentimental value for me, and has left a big impression on me ever since I first saw it.
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.
In his heyday, John Carpenter was the master of cinematic suspense and this story of urban violence was one of his best. A deserted police station is laid siege to by a fanatical gang out for blood when one of their number is killed by a man hysterical with grief when they casually murder his young daughter. In fact there isn't much more to the plot than that; this film is all about attitude and atmosphere. There are loads of great one liners, particularly from Darwin Joston as the laconic anti-hero who joins forces with his captors, and the characters are all very memorable. Laurie Zimmer, despite the virtually complete absence of romance in the situation has a sultry charisma that reminded me of a young Lauren Bacall and the plot has a very strong message; namely that violence begets violence. It's also very obvious that Carpenter was not the biggest fan of the LAPD when you consider that the whole incident is sparked by a combination of the fact that six gang members are callously gunned down in cold blood by faceless police officers, and the fact that the grief stricken father was only in that certain place at that time because he had little or no trust in the police. A fine example of economical and suspenseful storytelling with no unnecessarily overblown set pieces or frills that is far better than the (admittedly decent) remake.
There are very few filmmakers in the history of cinema who have been able to hit the ground running and make two or three near-perfect films in quick succession. Even Stanley Kubrick, who followed masterpiece with masterpiece in his prime, took ten years to hone his craft with smaller, more modest efforts like Fear and Desire. Assault on Precinct 13 finds John Carpenter still trying to work out not just what kind of filmmaker he wanted to be, but how to make a film in the first place. After 36 years it remains a serviceable and efficient but ultimately disappointing second venture.
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.
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