Robin’s Underrated Gems: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

One of the worst signs that there are way too remakes in Hollywood these days is when you look at a famous director s filmography and notice that a large chunk of his movies from the same time period have all been remade. For a prime example of this, one only has to look at John Carpenter’s early filmography. Hollywood has already done remakes of Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween and The Fog, not to mention that a remake of Escape from New York has been in development for a long time (though it seems to have currently stalled) and they recently released a prequel to Carpenter’s remake of The Thing. However, it should be pointed out that when the Assault on Precinct 13 remake was released seven years ago, most of the people I knew didn’t even realize it was a remake. While Assault on Precinct 13 was the film that put John Carpenter on the map as a top-notch director, it was not a success upon its original release and was greatly overshadowed by the massive success of Halloween two years later. Carpenter had made his feature-film directorial debut in 1974 with his ultra-low budget sci-fi black comedy, Dark Star, and had hopes of making a western as his follow-up project. That idea was pretty much quashed when he found out that his budget was only going to be $100,000, but Carpenter decided to work around this idea by doing a story that could best be described as a modern-day western set in South Central Los Angeles. As he would later demonstrate with Halloween, Carpenter proved himself to be a master at generating a lot of tension and suspense from a minimalist storyline and a limited budget. Over 35 years later, Assault on Precinct 13 remains one of John Carpenter’s strongest, albeit most underrated films.

While it s never stated that the film takes place in an apocalyptic future, such as the one depicted in Escape New York, this notion is almost implied since the Los Angeles in Assault on Precinct 13 is a crime-infested war zone with constant violence between the police and street gangs. The most dangerous gang in the city is called “Street Thunder”, a faction that’s represented by all races and ethnicities, and who also have a large cache of stolen weapons at their disposal. The first third of Assault on Precinct 13 features three parallel stories which all take place within a crime-filled ghetto called Anderson. The hero is a CHP lieutenant named Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker), who is assigned the task of overseeing the closure of a police precinct in a condemned section of Anderson, which is currently being run by a skeleton crew and will be permanently shut down the following morning. (Incidentally, the precinct in the film is called “Precinct 9, District 13”, NOT “Precinct 13”, but the distributors thought Assault on Precinct 13 was a catchier title). The second story involves a prison transport bus which houses a charismatic death row inmate named Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston). When one of the other prisoners becomes very sick, the bus is forced to stop at the Anderson precinct, so that they can keep the prisoners in the holding cells while attempting to contact a doctor. The third story involves an ordinary citizen named Lawson (Martin West) and his young daughter crossing paths with the Street Thunder gang in a most unexpected fashion. These stories all come together due to one of the most shocking acts of violence I have ever seen in a movie, which nearly garnered Assault on Precinct 13 an “X” rating and would probably NEVER make it into the film if it were released today!

When Lawson attempts to seek shelter at the Anderson precinct, everyone in the building finds themselves under siege by the Street Thunder gang, who cut the phones and electricity and use silenced sniper rifles to kill anyone who attempts to set foot outside. Even worse, the gang leaves a “Cholo” symbol outside the station, which drives home the message that they don t care if they live or die and will stop at nothing to enact a violent revenge on everyone inside. The survivors attempt to fight back with every weapon they have at their disposal and, of course, Bishop the cop and Wilson the convict both wind up fighting side-by-side as a bond and mutual respect develops between them. It’s somewhat ironic that so many of John Carpenter’s films have been remade since his version of The Thing is considered one of the greatest remakes of all time and Assault on Precinct 13 is itself a modernized semi-remake of the John Wayne/Howard Hawks western, Rio Bravo. That film featured John Wayne and his cohorts fighting off a siege of bad guys who were attempting to break a prisoner out of jail, and in fact, Carpenter would use Wayne’s character name, “John T. Chance”, as a pseudonym for his editing credit on Precinct 13. In fact, if you know the storyline to Rio Bravo, you might initially assume that Precinct 13 is going to build up to the Street Thunder gang making an attempt to break Napoleon Wilson out of jail, but the film throws the viewer a complete curveball with its shocking scene at the ice cream truck. Carpenter has also admitted that he was heavily influenced by Night of the Living Dead, which makes perfect sense since the Street Thunder gang are practically depicted as zombies. The gang members do not have one line of dialogue in the entire film and the most terrifying thing about them is that they are treated like an emotionless supernatural force who just will not stop until all of their victims are dead.

Carpenter milks this premise for all its worth and does a tremendous job at generating tension. This would mark the first time that the director would shoot one of his films in the 2.35:1 Panavision aspect ratio, and few filmmakers have ever done a better job at utilizing every inch of the widescreen frame than John Carpenter. The film also boasts a typically eerie electronic score from Carpenter, which may be minimalist but adds so much atmosphere to the scenes. The characters here are likable, and Carpenter is not afraid to lighten the tension with doses of humour and witty dialogue. The standout in the cast is Darwin Joston, who makes Napoleon Wilson into the friendliest death row inmate you ll ever see. The movie is purposely vague about what exactly Wilson did to merit going to death row, but Joston makes him into a very pleasant, honourable antihero whom Carpenter has claimed was an early version of Snake Plissken, and Wilson’s “Anybody got a smoke?” catchphrase makes for a great running gag. Assault on Precinct 13 was met with mixed reviews and did not do well at the box office on its original release, but the film drew a great reaction when it was screened at the London Film Festival and became a success in Europe, which lead the way to it becoming a cult favourite. The 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13 was a perfectly serviceable thriller, but was ultimately rather pointless and forgettable. It made the decision to change the villains in the story from zombie-like gang members to corrupt cops, but that approach was nowhere near as effective and caused the whole thing to come across as just another generic cop movie. Aside from the odd project, John Carpenter has pretty much been retired from directing for the past decade, but the fact that everyone seems to want to remake his movies says a lot about his legacy. Overall, I’d rank Assault on Precinct 13 as his third-best film, behind Halloween and The Thing, but sadly, it remains one of his most underrated. However, it serves as a great case study on how talented filmmakers can make a very intense and entertaining thriller with limited resources.

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