Before making the original Halloween into one of the most profitable independent films of all time, John Carpenter directed this riveting low-budget thriller from 1976, in which a nearly abandoned police station is held un... more »der siege by a heavily armed gang called Street Thunder. Inside the station, cut off from contact and isolated, cops and convicts who were headed for death row must now join forces or die. That's the basic plot, but it's what Carpenter does with it that's remarkable. Drawing specific inspiration from the classic Howard Hawks Western Rio Bravo (which included a similar siege on disadvantaged heroes), Carpenter used his simple setting for a tense, tightly constructed series of action sequences, emphasizing low-key character development and escalating tension. Few who've seen the film can forget the "ice cream cone" scene in which a young girl is caught up in the action by patronizing a seemingly harmless ice cream truck. It's here, and in other equally memorable scenes, that Carpenter demonstrates his singular knack for injecting terror into the mundane details of daily life, propelling this potent thriller to cult favorite status and long-standing critical acclaim. --Jeff Shannon« less
Daniel B. Waldman | Kensington, Maryland USA | 02/23/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"One should not watch this movie expecting the highly choreographed gunfight ballets that John Woo initiated & every other action movie has followed ever sense. This movie preceded all of that. The plot focuses on a small group of police officers and convicts fighting off a relentless street gang in an all but abandoned precinct. There are two central heroes of this movie: Bishop, a Black Police Chief who is new to the job & looking for a little adventure at the beginning of the film (a superior officer asks him "Do you want to be a hero your first time out?" "Yes, Sir," Bishop replies); and there is Napolean Wilson, a White man on his way to death row when the prison bus he is riding is forced to make a detour (check out this plot twist: another prisoner starts coughing & wheezing, nearly passing out, and guess what, rather than pulling a shiv on the cop who examines him, it turns out the guy is really sick! How often does that happen in a movie?). Napolean Wilson is a man with a lot of snappy comebacks. He says everything that we wished we'd said in certain situations after we thought about it because we know it would be so cool. More than one character says "You're pretty fancy, Wilson." The details of Wilson's crime is never revealed, but the fact that it was exceptionally savage is clear by the response of everyone else's response to him. These characters could have been lifted from any John Ford movie, but the fact that the movie takes place mostly at night and has a more contemporary time frame gives the movie a sweaty-palmed urgency that the Westerns lack. Even though the movie was made in 1976, the scene where the street gang cruises around & considers who to kill in a random drive-by shooting feels all too contemporary. Director John Carpenter limits the dialogue of the street gang in much the same way that the old Westerns would keep Indians at a distance -- so that the audience would never feel any empathy towards them. This hardly seems necessary as it seems difficult to feel pity for street gangs, but the move only helps to make them seem more fierce & inhumane than they might have otherwise been perceived. John Carpenter's memorable score also helps to accentuate the tension. A brilliant low-budget thriller that tops most of the big-budget ones we are stuck with today."
A classic "B' thriller is given a digital face-lift for blu-
Hugo D. Hackenbush | Main Street, USA | 03/27/2009
(3 out of 5 stars)
"The film itself is four-stars: taut, eerie, violent and suspenseful, this is a terrific example of a lo-fi 1970's "B" suspense thriller. The only thing that holds it back from "B" movie perfection are some rank amateurish acting performances; for some, that may add to the fun, but for me, it only distracts from an otherwise well-made, slick little action flick that really makes the most of its feeble production budget.
Regarding specifically the new 2009 blu-ray edition of this film (and to some degree the 2009 DVD version as well, since they share the same master), this version definitely has some things going for it over the 2003 edition: sharpness has been increased, the film has been cleaned up significantly and colors have been punched up.
The bad news: contrast has been jacked up to a distracting degree. Whereas once dark and grim, the picture is now colorful, clean and even (at times) bright, sometimes to a such a degree that blacks look blown out in several scenes. Daylight sequences now resemble 12:00 pm in the afternoon, as opposed to the 5:00 pm or later that the daylight shots are supposed to take place in.
The picture was filmed intentionally dark, and this darkness imbues an eerie quality to the film; it was difficult to make out who or what lurks in the shadows, which only added to the film's sense of fear and dread. Now, it is all too easy to catch a glimpse of the enemy, which does no favors for the film, as they often look like third-rate extras who stepped off of "The Warriors" film set. As is so often the case with low-budget films, the less that is seen, the better.
I also take umbrage with the new color: while these punched-up (re: touched up) colors look great during the day sequences, they add a new, comic book-like theatricality to the night scenes that take away from the dark eeriness that was formerly pervasive throughout the film; whereas once the mob shuffled and gathered vaguely in shadowy backgrounds to seek out their prey, now they coordinate their actions under fairly well-lit blue and purple stage lighting.
In the end, it will most definitely come down to personal preference; for me, the film has been cleaned up a little too much, as it now resembles less a mid-1970's "B" thriller, and more an early-1980's action flick.
With both discs carrying the same set of special features, I am sticking with my 2003 DVD edition of the film. Yes, the new edition is sharper, cleaner and brighter, but it's all at the expense of the atmosphere and visual tone of the film... both darkness and grunge are two of the most important characters in this movie, after all. The fact is, some things are better left in the dark."
They really don't make 'em like this anymore
Wheelchair Assassin | The Great Concavity | 04/08/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Before there was Halloween, there was Assault on Precinct 13, John Carpenter's second movie and arguably his first masterpiece. Fans of his later work should be warned though, there's no traditional horror or supernatural elements here, just one of history's all-time great low-budget action movies. By now the plot should be familiar to just about anyone reading this review: a lone cop and a couple of lifers have to defend a virtually abandoned police station against a street gang's onslaught. However, it's what Carpenter does with this concept that makes Assault on Precinct 13 such an exciting and memorable watch. It's a brilliantly executed pressure-cooker of a movie, thrusting a few decidedly disparate people into an unimaginably dire situation and letting us watch them as they try to figure out what to do about it. Although Carpenter has made much of the influence of classic westerns on this movie (Rio Bravo in particular), there are also ample doses of the eerie minimalism and stark brutality that Carpenter brought to Halloween, along with the tense, claustrophobic atmosphere that characterized much of Night of the Living Dead. Released in 1976 against the backdrop of escalating violence and decay in America's cities, the movie plays perfectly into fears of urban crime, as a small band of heroes are literally confronted with an onslaught from a small army of gang members. At bottom, though, Assault on Precinct 13 is a story of courage and heroism under the worst of circumstances, and it accomplishes this difficult task without being the slightest bit preachy, which may be even more impressive.
The movie certainly begins in a harrowing enough fashion, as the opening sequence shows six members of a gang known as Street Thunder being cut down by police gunfire in a darkened alley, followed by their gang's (oddly multiracial) leadership swearing a highly unpleasant blood oath vowing revenge for the deaths of their colleagues. From there the movie slows to a snail's pace for a while, establishing the important plot points and characters and steadily building suspense as the members of Street Thunder cruise the streets of the ghetto looking for a suitable target. However, this relative quiet is shattered in a most dramatic fashion in the now-infamous incident in which a little girl meets her unfortunate end at the hands of a machine-like gang leader (played in extremely menacing fashion by Frank Doubleday) while her father chats on a pay phone a few yards away. Carpenter admits in the DVD's commentary track that this scene would virtually guarantee an NC-17 rating today, and it's hard to disagree: it's almost unspeakably horrific, both in its unflinching violence and in the utter anguish that ensues when Dad sees the gang's handiwork. Things don't get much better when the girl's father exacts some revenge of his own on the shooter, as he winds up getting more than he bargained for and kicking the plot into high gear in the process when the rest of the gang pursues him into a nearly abandoned police station.
This admittedly obvious plot device doesn't just get the action of the movie in motion, it establishes an important pattern: long periods of exposition punctuated by explosions of hard-hitting visceral action. Made for about $100,000 (a tiny amount even 30 years ago), Assault on Precinct 13 is hardly a big-budget Hollywood extravaganza in the vein of Die Hard or Total Recall, but its cheap and simplistic feel actually winds up working in its favor. With virtually no money for special effects or big-name stars, Assault on Precinct 13 succeeds due largely to its emphasis on mood, economical dialogue, and characterization. Much like the aforementioned Night of the Living Dead, this movie examines the dynamics that unfold when a group of strangers are thrown together and forced to confront a mass of nameless, faceless enemies lurking right outside. More so than in Night of the Living Dead, though, here we really get an idea of the characters as people, particularly the three principals: Austin Stoker's amiable (and classically Afroed) black cop Ethan Bishop; Lynn Zimmer's determined secretary Leigh; and of course Darwin Joston's iconic convict Napoleon Wilson. From his icy stare to his sardonic wit to his considerable azz-kicking skills (check out that textbook arm break on the thug in the holding cell), Wilson is right up there with Eddie Murphy's Reggie Hammond from 48 Hrs. in the pantheon of film's most memorable antiheroes-turned-heroes.
Still, for all its character and plot development, Assault on Precinct 13 is at its best when it's in full-bore action mode. The violence is actually somewhat sporadic and generally not particularly graphic, but when it gets going it really gets going. The movie's most thrilling sequence undoubtedly occurs when the members of Street Thunder stage a full-scale assault on the police station and its inhabitants greet them with guns blazing. Watching Bishop, Wilson, and even Leigh dispense justice in the form of hot lead is itself more than worth any rental fee you might pay. It's actually somewhat reminiscent of the legendary climactic church standoff in John Woo's The Killer, which is of course a good thing 'cause that movie rules.
Fittingly, Image Entertainment has decked out this new special edition DVD with loads of extras, most notably a full-length commentary track from Carpenter and an interview with Carpenter and Stoker (though mostly Carpenter, which is too bad because Stoker's a funny guy) filmed a few years ago at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. The commentary and interview are full of insights from Carpenter, from descriptions of the film's technical aspects to the art of low-budget filmmaking to discussion of the film's influences and the aftermath of its release. There's also a brief, but extremely hilarious, revelation by Carpenter of how he managed to avoid getting Assault slapped with an X rating. Great stuff, just like this movie. You'd have to be nuts to avoid picking up the DVD, especially given its low price."
A Carpenter classic, but buyer beware
N. Durham | Philadelphia, PA | 05/03/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Two years before John Carpenter made a name for himself with the original Halloween, he put together this low budget classic in which desperate cops and prisoners must band together to withstand a siege. The original Assault on Precinct 13 mixed elements of Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead as a rather large gang wages a street war on a soon to be closed police station. Weaving an engaging character study with some incredibly intense action sequences, Assault on Precinct 13 still manages to pull out all the shocks today that it did in 1976, including the infamous ice cream truck scene which helps set the stage for police station siege. Forget about the recent watered down Hollywood remake; the original Assault on Precinct 13 remains one of the best low budget action films ever made, and one of the best films to come from the mind of visionary John Carpenter. Buyer beware, do not mistake this version for the Special Edition version which happens to have the same cover artwork. This cheaply priced edition has no extras whatsoever, and can be found in bargain bins."
What $100,000 Could Buy In 1976
Erik North | San Gabriel, CA USA | 01/06/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"In-between his debut with the ultra low budget 1974 cult classic DARK STAR and his breakthrough success in 1978 with HALLOWEEN, John Carpenter, a member of the 1960s film school generation that also gave us Lucas, Spielberg, and Scorsese, achieved a minor miracle by making a taut action/suspense thriller on a budget that wouldn't even cover the catering bill on most big budget Hollywood flicks today. ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 is that film, and it is solid proof of what a mere $100,000 could buy in 1976 with the right story and the right people.
In essence an urbanized variation on director Howard Hawks' 1959 western classic RIO BRAVO, ASSAULT stars Austin Stoker as a newly-promoted L.A.P.D. lieutenant whose first assignment is to oversee the closing down of an aging police precinct building in south Los Angeles on a hot summer night. At first, Stoker thinks this is nothing more than a routine matter. But after a young girl (Kim Richards) is killed alongside an ice cream truck by gang members, and her father (Martin West) seeks refuge after killing one of the thugs, Stoker and his skeleton crew, which includes prisoners being transferred from one jail to another, find their building under siege from dozens of multi-ethnic gang members who are willing to kill with extreme prejudice. Stoker and the remaining staff of the precinct must align with the prisoners (including Tony Burton and Darwin Joston) to hold the building and eliminate the gang bangers.
The result, despite some melodramatic dialogue and cliches, is a very provocative crime thriller from an era in which most such films gave audiences credit for having brains. Much has been made about the similarities between this film and RIO BRAVO, as well as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and they still hold up quite well even now. But equally important, the film's story of people under violent siege also resembles the climaxes of both Hitchcock's THE BIRDS and Sam Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS. Through his own editing (as John T. Chance, the name of the John Wayne character in RIO BRAVO) and music score, Carpenter ups the ante in terms of suspense, and the scene of Richards being killed at the ice cream truck is violent and disturbing without being a gratuitous case of blood and gore. Stoker, a veteran character actor in numerous 1970s action films, does a good turn as the head cop.
Filmed primarily on location in south Los Angeles, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 is a textbook example of how tension, suspense, and highly-charged action can be made coherently on a shoestring. It is a very fine cult film that time has been very kind to."