An L.A. street gang declares war on a police station about to be shut down that has given refuge to a man who has witnessed a gang slaying. Because of the shutdown, the phones and electricity have been turned off, and gang members await outside with knives and guns where the precinct has been totally shut off from the outside world.
Austin Stoker ... Ethan Bishop
Darwin Joston ... Napoleon Wilson
Laurie Zimmer ... Leigh
Martin West ... Lawson
Tony Burton ... Wells
Charles Cyphers ... Starker
Nancy Kyes ... Julie (as Nancy Loomis)
Peter Bruni ... Ice Cream Man
John J. Fox ... Warden
Marc Ross ... Patrolman Tramer
Alan Koss ... Patrolman Baxter
Henry Brandon ... Officer Chaney
John Carpenter is one of few directors who can successfully transform their movies into giant roller coaster rides without insulting the audience. James Cameron does this, sometimes, but usually adds more plot to his stories. Carpenter just takes simple premises, throws some characters together, and lets everything evolve and unwind on their own. "Assault on Precinct 13" deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as "Dawn of the Dead," or perhaps the overrated "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," as a very low-budget horror/thriller that takes a cast of unknowns, places them together, doesn't really delve into their backgrounds, but lets everything just work itself out like clockwork. There's an eager new cop, an infamous death row murderer, and a relocating precinct, all stuffed together into a movie about a vicious gang assault. It's brilliant in a very subtle way; a sign of things to come for a director who has implemented some of the most oft-used camera tricks in the horror world.
He pioneered the first-person killer perspective in "Halloween" - an effect sorely missed on full screen TV and VHS versions, to once again be savored on the wide screen DVD presentation. Carpenter received quite a number of critical jabs in 1978 for his use of the POV technique, explained to be too voyeuristic and potentially dangerous to be shown in a mainstream motion picture. Hitchcock used the POV technique very subtly in "Psycho's" famous shower sequence, but in "Halloween" it was far blunter, resulting in an uproar of moral complaints.
No matter. "Halloween" became movie horror legend, casting a spell over its viewers, inspiring major knock-offs such as the "Friday the 13th" series (which has overall made more money than the "Halloween" franchise due to more sequels than "Police Academy").
"Assault on Precinct 13" was one of Carpenter's very first efforts at directing. It shows. The movie is flawed, imperfect, both technically and otherwise (some of the dialogue in particular could have used fixing, and the acting is nothing incredible by any means). But it still has an addictive sense of urgency and frantic pacing that makes the movie feel like one long, non-stop, brutal assault - even though the setup for the film takes over forty minutes. It may not be a flawless film but it is one of my favorites.
It's about a new cop named Bishop (Austin Stoker) who is put in charge of a transferring L.A. police precinct - number thirteen. As equipment is carried out of the building and last-minute closings are made, far away a bus load of convicts, including notorious murderer Wilson (Darwin Joston), decide to stop at precinct 13 due to the fact that one of the criminals seems to be coming down with a harsh cough. And downtown, a young girl is shot by a ruthless gang member. Her father shoots the killer, and then flees to precinct thirteen, hunted by the gang members, who eventually begin to siege the precinct in a suicide raid. Trapped with two killers, a few cops and a jail warden, Bishop and company try to think of a way out of the place without getting shot by the vicious gang outside.
That's basically it - people stuck inside a police station trying to get out without dying in the process. The movie is only ninety minutes long, give or take, which is a good thing, because if it had been any longer it might have lost some of its pacing and become tiring. Instead, there isn't a single scene in "Assault on Precinct 13" that I think should have been cut. I'm sure there are some that could have been tossed onto the editing room floor, but I'm glad that the movie is the way it is - it flows smoothly and we don't ever feel like a scene has gone on too long or too short. In that sense, it's just about perfect.
Carpenter has had one of the most successful careers of all time, followed by a legion of cult fans. His "Halloween" is one of the greatest horror films of all time, and one of the most influential. He occasionally makes his duds, like any director, but in this case, the good far outweighs the bad. "Assault on Precinct 13" is an utterly refreshing film experience that manages to maintain a fast speed but never appears to be cheating its target audience, or treating them stupid. The movie is being remade in 2005, with a considerably higher budget, bigger names, and probably worse directing. I don't really look forward to this remake because I can almost guarantee that, given the age it is being made in, there will be many pointless plot explanations, worse dialogue and bad direction. "Assault on Precinct 13" does not really need to be made again because the first one works so well. History has taught us that most remakes are not at all on the same level as their influences - just look at Hitchcock's "Psycho," then Van Sant's. If it isn't broken, don't fix it. "Assault on Precinct 13" is not broken and it does not need to be fixed.
This is rightly considered a classic cult movie from the 1970's by the once reliable John Carpenter (who also composed the edgy early synth score). Basically it's a faint mish-mash of other movies, the dialogue is reminiscent of great westerns as a black policeman and a white convict battle against gang members in a Night of The Living Dead re-working. It's also tempting to draw Vietnam allegories (as with many American movies of the mid 1970's and after); the faceless, nameless gang members die in the droves but keep attacking the besieged police station and the lawmen and the lawbreakers, black and white, must unite to defeat them and escape with their lives.
The real joy of this movie, however, is the playing of the two virtually unknown leads, Austin Stoker and the late Darwin Joston. They have a great, almost wry chemistry and use Carpenter's stripped-down witty dialogue to great effect. Because there are no 'stars', there are no real expectations, and the shocks when they come (including the famous ice cream sequence) are more shocking for it.
The representation of women leaves a little to be desired (the two female characters obviously shop at the same sweater store!) but the character Lee shows some inner strength and resolve, and even has time for some kind of upper hand in terms of sexual tension between herself and Joston's Napoleon Wilson.
If you haven't seen this movie I urge you to watch it; in terms of B movies and cult thrillers it's the yardstick in my opinion; simple, stylish, violent, witty and not remotely sentimental.
With the release of the 2005 remake of John Carpenter's classic action film, "Assault on Precinct 13," rapidly approaching, I took a chance and managed to purchase the last DVD copy of the special edition at my local video store and I must say that Carpenter's second directorial feature ranks amongst some of the director's finest work.
The first film by Carpenter that I really liked was "The Thing" (1982), because it utilized its claustrophobic setting and escalating tension by focusing on the paranoia of the characters rather than splattering the screen with pointless action.
"Assault on Precinct 13" has much in common with "The Thing" in this sense, the mounting tension and fears between the characters, which of course help to further the plot and heighten a slight emotional attachment to the leads.
I'll say that Carpenter's film is a perfect example of what's wrong with a lot of movies today, and how Hollywood has grown less skillful and daring over the years. For those that don't know what I mean, just watch the scene in "Precinct" with the "wrong-flavored ice cream" to get an idea of just HOW far Carpenter was willing to go with this picture.
Though the primary setting for the action in this movie takes place at the abandoned police station in Precinct 9, Division 13, it opens with the shooting deaths of six Los Angeles gang members by the police. News breaks on random radio stations inform the audience that a large cache of weapons was stolen from a facility and the police are overworked with the rapid rise in crime over the last 24 hours.
The camera then centers on four sinister-looking individuals in their living room, weapons and ammo boxes strewn about, they each sit, like warlords at a tribal counsel, plotting what evil deeds they're about to unleash. They then enter into a blood oath, to the death, but for what is largely unknown.
Across town, Bishop (Austin Stoker), the newly promoted lieutenant, is on his way to work for his first assignment and is ordered to head over to Precinct 9, where there are only a few people working. Already many of the supplies and ammunition have been moved across town to the new police station, which is located far away.
At a local jail across town, Nathaniel Wilson (Darwin Joston) is on his way to prison to face the death penalty for several murders, of which the nature is presumably extreme since he's being put to death. We know it had to be something horrific, since he informs one of the officers supervising him that a preacher once told him that he had seen death in his eyes.
It would seem that fate, or the "Street Thunder," the largest, most powerful and deadliest gang in Los Angeles, brings them all together at Precinct 9, where the few police officers on duty and a few convicts are forced to make a stand, as the murderous gang members lay siege to the police station with heavy-weapons fire.
Carpenter's second feature is heavy on wall-to-wall action and vicious violence, but surprisingly there's a strong center about the characters and the dire situation they're trapped in. Only a handful of people remain in the police station to ward off the seemingly hundreds of faceless, murderous gang members that want into the place, and aren't afraid to die in the process.
Carpenter owed a lot to the apparent source material, "Rio Bravo," which had a similar plot about everyday people who are forced to make not-so-everyday decisions when they become trapped in a nightmarish situation with some very upset people looking for their blood.
I can only hope that the remake of this 1976 action classic is as bold and daring as its predecessor, or we'll have one hell of a flop on our hands.
* Following the release of his first feature, Dark Star (1974), John Carpenter was approached by a group of investors who gave him carte blanche to make whatever kind of picture he wanted, albeit with a very limited budget. Although Carpenter wanted to make a Western, he knew he wouldn't have the resources to make a period piece. He wrote this film as a highly stylized, modern-day western, essentially remaking Rio Bravo (1959), which was directed by Carpenter's hero, Howard Hawks. Carpenter acknowledges this debt to Hawks and "Rio Bravo" by using the pseudonym of John T. Chance for his film editor's credit, which was the name of John Wayne's character in "Rio Bravo".
* The assault takes place on Precinct 9, Division 13
* Director Cameo: [John Carpenter] as one of the gang members shot trying to climb in through a window
* The precinct's new address, 1977 Ellendale Place (written on a sign erected in front of the building), was director John Carpenter's real address when he first lived in Los Angeles.
* Darwin Joston's portrayal of convict Napoleon Wilson is inspired by Charles Bronson's character "Harmonica" in C'era una volta il West (1968); when asked to explain themselves and their actions, both respond "Only at the point of dyin'.."
* The MPAA threatened an "X" rating if the shocking "ice cream scene" wasn't cut. The distributor advised John Carpenter to give the MPAA a version with the scene excised to get an "R" rating, and then simply distribute the original version complete with the scene. The ruse worked.
* John Carpenter has said that he based his score to this film on both Lalo Schifrin's score to Dirty Harry (1971) and Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song".
* The story that Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) tells about his father sending him to the police station when he was 6 years old with a note, is actually a true story of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock told this to François Truffaut in Truffaut's book "Hitchcock".
* Shot in only 20 days.
* The theme music has been sampled by Bomb the Bass (Hip-Hop on Precinct 13) and the bass line used by U2 on "New Years Day"