First published by Movie Gazette
Only the second feature film (after 1974’s hilarious 2001: A Space Odyssey-parody Dark Star) of B-grade king John Carpenter, who went on to make such genre classics as Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Assault on Precinct 13 is an object lesson in how the limitations of meagre funds (it was made for a mere $100,000) and a cast of unknowns can be overcome by tight scripting, able direction and pacy editing.
On his first evening of duty as a police lieutenant, Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoke) is assigned what should be an easy task – to oversee the skeleton staff of a decommissioned police station in a Los Angeles ghetto called Anderson. Yet owing to a sequence of events beyond his control, Bishop and his resourceful colleague Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) find the station under siege from a heavily armed coalition of street gangs who have sworn to kill everyone inside – and with no way of contacting the outside world, the only help to which the beleaguered officers can turn is Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) and Wells (Tony Burton), two death row prisoners stowed in the station’s rear cells. With time and ammunition running out, all must take one final, desperate stand against the forces of darkness closing in.
John Carpenter has never been able to get the money together for the western he has always wanted to make, but by loosely adapting the plot of Assault on Precinct 13 from his idol Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) – much as he would later remake Hawks’ The Thing Form Another World (1951) – and filling his film with frontier morality, he instead created an urban oater which reveals the oldworld savagery and chaos still thriving behind modern America’s fragile veneer of civilisation. “We’re in the middle of a city, inside a police station”, says an exasperated Bishop – but nowhere, Carpenter suggests, is truly safe once those old wardrums start beating, and nothing is black and white when a convicted killer can also be an honorable hero, while the representatives of the law, like the police sharpshooters who ignite the trouble in the opening scene, or Wilson’s abusive prison warden (John J. Fox), can be as brutal and murderous as the hoodlums that they pursue. As traditional values quickly break down, principle is shown to come not from the institutions which society has constructed, but from individuals who do what they have to do – and so Carpenter implies that we are all still cowboys, fighting every day to preserve, or disrupt, order on our own city streets.
In a masterfully taut tour de force of criss-crossing scenes, the film’s first third tracks the evolution of a crisis, as a chain of incidents – including the merciless point-blank shooting of a young girl that is still shocking today – lead inexorably to the assault of the title. From there on in the film is a tense siege drama, driven along by the compelling electronic soundtrack composed (for budgetary reasons) by Carpenter himself, who also has a cameo as one of the thugs coming through a shot-out window. Most striking of all, the relentless hordes of attackers never speak, evoking the zombie assailants in George A. Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead (1968) – both films, after all, offer protagonists who are black, a morality that is grey, and social commentary in the guise of horror.
© Anton Bitel