Posted March 22, 2011 by editor in Retrospectives

John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13

John Carpenter burst onto the international scene with this 1976 genre classic which has since become a cult favourite the world over. Having received lukewarm reviews in his native USA the film became all the rage at the 21st London Film festival in 1977. This rapturous reception led to massive success all across Europe before American critics re-evaluated the film to later name it one of the action classics of the decade. John Carpenter has claimed that the failure in America was down to the audience’s over familiarity with the Western genre whereas European audience revelled in these similarities.

Assault on Precinct 13 is essentially a remake of the Howard Hawks’ classic Western Rio Bravo. Originally it was John Wayne and his band of misfits who found themselves held up in the Sheriff’s station against a band of desperate villains. The remake simply replaces the cowboys with police and gangs as the action movies to South Central LA.

The film begins with fake cops slaughtering gang members that in turn initiates a gang war hell bent on revenge against the police. New Highway Patrolman Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is assigned to babysit the old Precinct 13 as it finally winds down to closure. Sadly for him the quiet night he’s expecting is shattered with the arrival of Lawson, a civilian who’s just seen his daughter killed. Then a bus-load of prisoners arrives searching for medical help for one of its passengers. The gangs have followed Lawson and now they have all those inside cornered. As the violence begins those trapped inside must work together to attempt to hold out against the endless onslaught of violence from those outside. Ultimately Bishop, ultra-violent prisoner Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) and the very Hawks-ian kick-ass female Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) retreat to the cellar for the final showdown.

Repeat viewings of Assault on Precinct 13 simply confirm why this cult classic has the reputation of brilliance bestowed upon it. The combination of simple plot and extreme violence is brilliant as the ninety-minute running time flies by in a hail of bullets. The cast is superbly uncluttered by star names leading to a genuine suspense about who’ll survive. Special mention must be given to Frank Doubleday who plays the part of a gang leader with alarming intensity. Doubleday apparently explained to Carpenter that his thought process for the character was a simple extension of the high velocity rifle he possessed.

Howard Hawks is John Carpenter’s favourite director as he loved the eye level shooting style of the Hollywood legend, something he re-creates in Assault. Another aspect of Hawks’ films Carpenter seems obsessed with is his strong women ready to resort to violence whenever it’s called for. Laurie Zimmer plays Leigh the station secretary who, like so many of Hawks’ women is there right at the end, gun in hand, standing next to the two male leads. Both male leads deliver fine performances but Darwin Joston as wise-ass prisoner Napoleon Wilson steals the film. His genuine dislike for everything, combined with his will to survive, is perfectly captured.

The seventies became the second golden era for American film and Assault on Precinct 13 can stand shoulder to shoulder with any action movie of the decade. As well as his superb direction, Carpenter also provides the brilliant soundtrack that perfectly matches the quiet menace of the proceedings. Later gang classics such as The Warriors owe much in terms of their brutal violence to Assault on Precinct 13.

Recently remade with disastrous results, people should simply stick to the original classic that is Assault on Precinct 13.  This is the kind of film that makes me envious of anyone about to experience it for the first time.  The more action films you watch the better, as this will allow you to gain a fuller understanding into how critical a moment this film was for the genre. The first true masterpiece by John Carpenter, in a decade that would see him direct one great film after another. Essential viewing.

Aled Jones