Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

The last few movies I’ve written about have had release dates somewhere in the past 3 years (I’m seriously surprised how many movies I’ve written about on this blog so far that were released in 2013), so I figured I would turn back the proverbial clock and review a movie from a decade we haven’t touched here on Coffee And Illithids: the ’70s. The ’70s were a time of big mustaches, ugly suits, and exploitation flicks. Yes, in the ’70s, the grindhouse was king. Gritty movies with violence, sexual assault, and other despicable acts portrayed on screen. Anti-heroes or even villains were the protagonists of these movies. They would leave you with a grimy, sleazy feeling when they were over, like you had to take a shower to wash the filth from your soul. I don’t think anyone could say they walked out of movies like The Last House on the Left or I Spit on Your Grave with a smile on their face. However, leave it to a director like John Carpenter to bring a smarter, more accessible style of grindhouse flick to the silver screen.

mv5byzdkyjziyjetn2uwzs00ngqyltg2y2mtzwyymtaxmgewzjbkxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtqxnzmzndi-_v1_sy1000_cr006561000_al_John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 is ’70s action thrill ride reminiscent of movies like The Warriors, Night of the Living Dead, and The Hills Have Eyes. The premise, like most Carpenter movies is simple: A couple colorful characters are stuck in a hairy situation together and they need to overcome their differences to work together and fight the bad guys. We had Jack Burton and Wang Chi teaming up against Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China, MacCready, Childs and the rest of the gang versus the alien nightmare in The Thing, and the epic smackdown Frank and Nada gave the aliens in They Live.

Assault on Precinct 13 sees police Lt. Bishop (Austin Stoker) joining forces with death row inmate and convicted murderer Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) while defending an L.A. police precint against a blood crazed gang laying siege to it after one of their leaders is killed. Bishop and Wilson need to hold down the building with its couple remaining staff members overnight until reinforcements arrive. It’s like the opposite of The Raid, but I mean that in the nicest way possible.

Assault on Precinct 13 is a tight movie, and it benefits from it. It clocks in at almost exactly an hour and thirty minutes and with its simple story, characters, and script it lets the tension and action take the wheel and never feels bogged down or slow. There is a fair bit of set up, as the meat of the story is the outcome of three separate, concurrent events, but Carpenter is able to treat them with their own quick pacing so the audience doesn’t get bored. The scenes of the gang roaming the street are some of my favorite in the entire movie (the ice cream truck scene springs to mind) and showcase some great tension, building up how much we should despise these punks. Whenever Wilson is on screen you can’t help but smirk, and the segments fleshing out Bishop are pretty typical for an average action movie protagonist. I do have to say though that Carpenter does have a knack for writing solid dialogue, opting to use the show-don’t-tell approach to teaching us about his characters.

Wilson is by far the best part of the whole movie. From his constantly calm and collected demeanor, to his little one liners and quips, to his comedic repeated asking if he can bum a smoke off someone, Wilson oozes cool throughout Assault on Precinct 13. His mysterious background also plays a part in how interesting he is, as he nonchalantly reflects everyone else’s questions about him. He doesn’t come across as dark and edgy, but more charming and cynical. Unfortunately for Carpenter, Wilson is really the only engaging character written in the film. Everybody else has their moments here and there, but for the most part they just kind of come across as one-dimensional. Fortunately for us, that’s not really why we watch John Carpenter movies. Carpenter films are more about the what and the how rather than the who and the why. He’s an expert at horror and not too shabby at action, and he knows it. He can lead us from action scene to action scene with sparse but witty dialogue, keeping our attention on the film regardless of what’s happening on screen.

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The enemy gang as a whole acts as a sort of character in the film. They’ve got their own distinct personality and style. I like how they were portrayed as violence crazed maniacs who literally fight to the death with complete devotion to their gang, but be smart enough to employ tactics and strategies to ensure their plan succeeds. From hiding behind moving cover to removing evidence of their presence, to learning, adapting, and anticipating the strategies of our protagonists throughout the movie, we learn that these guys are more than your usual on screen hooligans. Even in the way they move on screen is different, with gang members taking advantage of cover and using squad formations in their attacks. Parts of the movie play out more like a zombie film, with the silent but steady waves of gang members breaking in through back doors and unbarricaded openings, and swarming the precinct all the way until the inevitable last stand.

While definitely not my favorite Carpenter film, Assault on Precinct 13 is a fun little movie with enough bullets and one-liners to satiate. The acting is a little rough here and there, but the great action set pieces combined with brisk pacing and Carpenter’s awesome synth score keep your attention for its duration. I’d definitely recommend this movie to anyone who is a fan of John Carpenter, as you can see some of the beginnings of his signature style bubbling to the surface here. If you aren’t a Carpenter fan I’d still recommend Assault of Precinct 13 because it’s a solid action flick that doesn’t demand too much mental focus. Just be sure to grab some beers and a bucket of popcorn for the ride.

-David

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