An inspired fusion of Rio Bravo and Night Of The The Living Dead made for as little money as possible, Assault On Precinct 13 is the exact moment a fledgling, pre-Halloween John Carpenter leveled-up from an experimental, twitchy filmmaking student (Dark Star) to a full blown master of his craft.
Essentially a 91 minute showcase of how to deliver gritty thrills and spills with a brutally efficient minimalist attitude, it also turns out to be the cradle of life for many of Carpenter’s familiar themes that permeated virtually every other movie the man ever made (well… maybe not so much Memoirs Of An Invisible Man).
So pump a new shotgun shell into the chamber, barricade the bullet torn windows and prepare an unfeasibly cynical one liner in the face of certain death as we prepare to weather the Assault On Precinct 13.
Due to the unfeasibly high crime rate in South Central Los Angeles, the police are extra heavy handed when it comes to dealing with members of the sadistic street gang known as Street Thunder (give ’em a break, it was the 70’s, ok?) after theft of a cache of guns. As retaliation, the four Warlords of the Street Thunder head out the following day with the intention of fulfilling a blood oath by assassinating random members of the public. Meanwhile two other sequences of events are slowly converging; the first involves optimistic and newly promoted CHP officer, Lieutenant Ethan Bishop, being disgruntled with his first assignment: that of babysitting a decommissioned police precinct hours before it’s closed for good. The other concerns a prisoner transport that holds infamous criminal and impressively named anti-hero Napoleon Wilson having to make a temporary stop due to another one of the other convicts being taken ill. Rolling up at the titular precinct, the crew of the bus find that there’s only a skeleton crew awaiting them, but on the horizon there’s a storm brewing. After Street Thunder’s blood oath results in the shocking murder of a little girl, her vengence crazed father manages to kill one of the Warlords in retaliation which, in turn, galvanises the entire gang to come after him in a swarm of murderous street punks. Fleeing the countless gang members whose current sole purpose is to kill the living shit out of him, the father finds shelter at – you guessed it – the decommissioned precinct after which he collapses into catatonic shock leaving the staff to contend with a crap load of scarily organised maniacs. Utterly unaware why any of this is actually happening, the survivors of the initial attack have to band together in order to make it through the night – but is that going to be possible when the rag tag group contains people on both sides of the law?
While Halloween rightfully gets all the adulation when it comes to discussing Carpenter’s no nonsense talent when it comes to crafting a cinematic experience, I’ve always been a tad frustrated that Precinct 13 isn’t as lauded as much as Michael Myers’ holiday excursion. The director scripts with deft intelligence, keeping one eye on what he could actually afford and the other on keeping an air of paranoid mystery that prevents all the players from knowing all the pieces of the story. The glib, cool attitude of the film works mostly because of what the movie doesn’t tell us, choosing to lightly sketch each character as so their actions define them rather than endless scenes of dialogue – why dedicate pages of script to having actors vomit out needless paragraphs when just one wry comment will do the job infinitely better.
You couldn’t find a better example of this than Darwin Joston’s honorable murderer Napoleon Wilson, who is the undoubtedly the first in a prominent line of squinty bad men who heavily populate Carpenter’s filmography and who have reluctant heroism thrust upon them. Wilson, with his deliberately glossed over past (we know he murdered some men, but we have no idea why), repeated catchphrases (he’s constantly asking for a smoke) and a latent honorable streak is obviously a prototype for Snake Plissken, R.J. MacReady, Jack Crow and even Desolation Williams. Meeting him halfway is Austin Stoker’s Ethan Bishop, our more conventional hero who still staunchly believes in decency and good despite being constantly told otherwise (“There are no heroes anymore, Bishop, just men who follow orders.”), as well as the fact that he’s a cop in a dystopian, crime soaked shithole; and it’s his relationship with Wilson, one built on almost instant mutual respect and the fact that drugged out freaks are trying to kill them, that forms the spine of the movie.
The movie insists on being stubbonly uncomplicated, deeming the threat of a faceless horde of kill crazy fruitcakes more than enough to carry us through and holds off on any needless drama between the survivors that would offset the muscular purity of the initial concept – why would you fight with each other when dozens of marauders lurk right outside your door?
Another thing that make Precinct 13 such a refreshing watch despite it being as old as I am, is that not much fuss is particularly made of the fact that Bishop is black, or that disturbingly tight sweatered secretary, Julie, has the unyielding nerves of solid marble and is more than capable of holding her own alongside Wilson and Bishop. The movie contains none of the overt racism or sexism you’d expect from a 70’s thriller – hell, even Street Thunder is fairly diverse – and you suspect once again it’s all thanks to the insanely economical script.
However, don’t think that Carpenter can’t play rough when he has to and the movie, along with being as tense as hell, contains possibly the most shocking moment in his entire career: that of the stunningly casual shooting of an ice cream holding sweet little girl – but even this is a stroke of storytelling genius. The second that bullet thuds into the chest of that pigtailed, uncomprehending child is the exact second Carpenter doesn’t even have to try and continue to make the gang members a threat anymore a most of the work is already done – also, giving them an almost supernatural aura (they never converse out loud, they have absolutely no fear of death, they magically clean up the area between attack waves) ratchets the tension ever higher.
Sure, some may find it’s single-mindedness a little light on plot, but you can’t argue with the sheer velocity that the film has. Cool characters, relentless action and a typically iconic Carpenter score mean that in this case, 13 is a very lucky number.