Spoilers don’t have any smokes.
Whenever I really need to watch a good film, John Carpenter never disappoints. This particular feature has all the staples of his classic films, which also ended up as becoming staples on a lot of genre films even to this day. All this to say, it will feel dated but I do believe it does hold up. It’s also a very violent film, although tame by today’s standards. Yes, this is going to be recommended all the way, but there’s more I need to say here if you’re willing to read ahead.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) was written and directed by John Carpenter. Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is put in charge of a police precinct that is being decommissioned in a dangerous neighbourhood. The local gang warlords have started a war after six of their members were gunned down by police. This gets escalated when Lawson (Martin West), a desperate father, exacts revenge on one of the gang after his young daughter is gunned down in the middle of the day. Meanwhile, a group of prisoners are being transferred, including a specially dangerous convict named Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Johnston) along with inmates Wells (Tony Burton) and Caudell (Peter Frankland). Eventually they all converge at the station, where only secretaries Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), Julie (Nancy Loomis) and Sergeant Chaney (Henry Brandon) are left.
I know the build up will be considered slow by some, but I think it does serve the purpose of informing who these characters are without having much exposition. Bishop is new to his position, but he’s a neighbourhood local and tough but fair. He exchanges stories with Leigh who knows her way around the station. Wilson is secluded from the other prisoners and wears shackles at all times, he’s considered the most dangerous. We learn a lot during this seemingly normal introduction. At the same time, the whole reason for the siege of the precinct is never explained to the people inside since Lawson remains in shock for the rest of the movie.
We do get to see the reason for the gang’s initial rampage after the six gang members are gunned down by police, as well as their blood oath. After that, whenever we see them they’ve become almost supernatural beings. I’m definitely not the first to compare the siege to a typical zombie attack. I do like that certain things are never explained. We never know the reasons behind Wilson’s crimes. It seems there’s something brewing between him and Leigh, but the film never goes there since this is not that kind of film. Leigh herself is an enigma. She can handle herself with a gun and she does get shot in the arm without reacting much to it. She’s obviously been to a lot but we don’t have time to know what drives her, but she’s as tough as they come.
That’s actually one the things the movie knows better to do. The priority is surviving the attack, so there’s no time to do anything else once that is in motion. In any other film, we would stop to learn more about each character’s background or introduce a lead antagonist for the gang or add a romance angle for Leigh. Nothing like that is done here. It contributes to the urgency of the situation. It’s also rather poignant how the gang members don’t seem to care about their lives or seek cover. We do get a small exposition from Wells on what’s this about, but it’s little consolation.
Extremely recommended for fans of genre films. Casual audiences might find it very slow on the take. I think the violent tone is still rather serious, even if it’s not as graphically depicted. I’d specially say the murder of the little girl strikes a rather deep chord. The performances of the main cast are decent enough, with Austin Stoker’s Bishop and Laurie Zimmer’s Leigh being the standouts. Worth a watch and a few more.
That will do for now.