Assault on Precinct 13

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) movie poster

(1976) director John Carpenter
viewed: 08/13/10

Assault on Precinct 13, director John Carpenter’s second feature film, is a taut, wily, and clever action film, far outreaching its low budget means to make a seriously solid flick.  Frankly, this was another of Carpenter’s films that I’d never seen and that had languished on my rental queue for many a year, like his first feature film, Dark Star (1974), which I had just seen earlier in the week.  While Dark Star‘s charms exude from its low-budget, low-fi character, Assault on Precinct 13 shows greater ambition and greater rewards.

A rough re-telling of Howard Hawks’ western Rio Bravo (1959), Carpenter transposes the Old West onto the rougher neighborhoods of 1970’s Los Angeles which is plagued by violent multicultural street gangs.  An old police station is being moved, and the action takes place on the last night of this outpost’s tenure, operating with a skeleton staff and with its telecommunications being shut off.  When a gang member is killed in retribution for the killing of a little girl, the gang members hunt the girl’s father to the station where he seeks help and protection from the police.  And the station is also a temporary holding pen for some violent prisoners who are on their way to a penitentiary.  A motley crew of a local police lieutenant, the prisoners, and the secretarial staff have to fight off the gang and try to make it though the night.

The cast, mostly obscure to unknown actors, is tremendously strong.  Austin Stoker plays the lieutenant, Darwin Joston is “Napoleon” Wilson, a convicted murderer, Tony Burton is Wells, another convict, and Laurie Zimmer plays the secretary.  They all turn in solid performances, and Carpenter gives them good dialogue and a lot to work with.  It’s really quite a surprisingly strong cast all around.

Something else additionally interesting is that Carpenter makes the gang members very specifically multicultural.  Maybe this is to try to use the milieu without addressing any of the racial strife or challenges of Los Angeles of the period, I don’t know.  But the gang has four leaders, a “Hispanic”, “Oriental”, “Black”, and “White” kingpins, as they are described in the credits.  And they bond through a blood-letting and mixing ceremony, symbolizing their commitment to one another.  Interestingly, they never have any dialogue themselves, so their motivations are left a little up in the air and undefined.

Perhaps the film’s most potent scene, and one of its most controversial, is when a young girl is shot to death in a random act of violence.  She’s holding a vanilla ice cream cone, looking very innocent, and the blood splatters her body.  It’s a sudden, surpising event, duly shocking.  Still potent today.

I have to say, this film only further whetted my apetite for revisiting Carpenter’s  films.   So, don’t be terribly surprised to see more of them written up here in the coming weeks and months.

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