Director: John Carpenter
Writer: John Carpenter
Starring: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laure Zimmer, Martin West, Tony Burton, Charles Cyphers, Nancy Loomis
John Carpenter’s second film, Assault on Precinct 13, was released in 1976 to a poor box office and a disappointing critical reception. It wasn’t until the following year at the London Film Festival that it found critical acclaim. Inspired by both Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead, the film is about the siege of an almost closed police precinct. Despite the title, the film actually takes place in precinct 9, division 13, but the title was changed from the original The Anderson Alamo to make is seem more ominous.
A collection of assault rifles has been stolen by a gang in a poor area of Los Angeles, leading to clashes between the police and gangs over the weapons. Members of the gang are gunned down by police in the search for the weapons. At the same time the local precinct is closing down and newly promoted First, Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is assigned to the precinct for it’s last few hours. When a man runs in off the street, unable to explain what’s happened to him, the local gang puts the precinct under siege.
Assault on Precinct 13 is a really solid thriller, it ramps up the tension all the way through with the stakes getting higher and higher. It starts with the first half hour following different stories that ultimately come together with the siege. It shows Ethan arriving at the precinct and finding it almost empty and ready to close. At the same time the gang is setting out with weapons aiming them at people through their car windows, a group of prisoners are being transported and have to make a stop at the precinct due to illness, and most importantly Lawson (Martin West) and his daughter Kathy (Kim Richards) are lost and stop so Lawson can make a phone call. While he’s on the phone his daughter goes to buy ice cream and is murdered by one of the gang members. Lawson follows the gang, killing one in return and then runs away to the precinct setting the siege in motion as the gang follows him there.
Even though not much really happens in the first act of the film, it’s setting everything in place for the ramped-up action to come. It gives you just the right amount of time to understand the characters and become invested in them. When everything really gets going it’s incredibly tense, and that only works because of how well everything is set up in the first place. It’s has your heart racing waiting to see what happens next as you want everyone to survive. It’s essentially the small group of survivors holding out against the never-ending horde of zombie like gang members, who don’t feat death. They relentlessly try to get in, getting mowed down by the mix of police and prisoner survivors.
All of the characters are fully realised and well written, as well as brought to life by some great performances. Austin Stoker is great as Ethan Bishop, an instantly likable character that doesn’t take the easy way out. He’s also treats the prisoners as human beings after the siege starts, making sure they are taken out of the prion cells and not left to die. He also trusts them to do the right thing, and there’s a great moment when he first gives Wilson (Darwin Joston) a gun, and their eyes meet, both knowing that the power has shifted. Wilson is an interesting character, a murderer who’s heading to death row, even though you don’t really get to know why he killed people. The other inmate who survives the initial attack, Wells (Tony Burton), is a good addition to the main characters. In a contrasting moment with Wilson, when Wells first picks up the gun there’s a look of unrivalled joy on his face as he turns round to shoot the gang members. As always with his films, John Carpenter also created the score for Assault on Precinct 13. It’s a catchy synth soundtrack that’s instantly recognisable as something from Carpenter.
The only downside to the film now, coming at it almost half a century later, is that there are a few moments that show the film’s age. Some blood that doesn’t look real, and some outdated effects when the place is being shot up. It’s easy to overcome though, and the film is still a tense thriller. It’s really worth watching if you’re a fan of thrillers, or want to see a pre-Halloween film from Carpenter.
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