A simple story of a street gang terrorizing a soon-to-be abandoned police station while the inhabitants within fight for their lives, Assault on Precinct 13 is surprisingly touching and a great example of Carpenter’s economy as a filmmaker, as the film is lean and packs quite a punch. While the plot sounds flimsy, it’s Carpenter’s care for his characters, creating real people we care about, in extraordinary circumstances that make it work on so many levels rather than becoming a mindless action film.
Officer Bishop (Austin Stoker) has been assigned to watch the titular precinct for the evening until it can be officially closed down and emptied out the next day. For one night of terror, along with a couple of convicts en route to another facility (Martin West and Tony Burton) and the precinct’s remaining staff (Nancy Loomis and Laurie Zimmer), Bishop and the others barricade themselves into the police station to ward off a merciless group of thugs. There are quite a few turns in the plot and surprises with a few characters, but it’s nothing that can be discussed without spoiling the fun.
Typical of most of Carpenter’s work, his casting is quite carefully laid out. Stoker is a great fit for his role and has a very natural presence. Even when going into “hero” mode, there is no grandstanding or posing here. Laurie Zimmer as Leigh, a secretary at the police station, stands up well next to him as the precursor to what Carpenter would do next in Halloween with Jamie Lee Curtis in creating a signature strong female lead. Speaking of that film, Nancy Loomis, who played Annie in Halloween, makes her first appearance in a Carpenter film as Julie, Leigh’s co-worker. As for the rest of the cast, Martin West as Lawson, a murderer on his way to death row is the other standout as he challenges everyone’s notions of social order and justice; he’s just plain charming in an unnerving way.
Fans of John Carpenter have come to expect a certain level of visual flair with his work. Part of that is the 2.35:1 framing he so loves. With his first “big” movie, Carpenter delivers and the presentation is quite worthy. This new release from Scream Factory handles detail quite well, as well as color levels and skin tones looking natural. The only place where the picture suffers is the black levels. There are a few instances of the image getting muddy, but overall it’s a solid picture. On the audio side of things, we have a 5.1 mix that is a bit hollow sounding, as the spread of effects, dialogue and music over all the channels feels thin. The original soundtrack is far more robust, and is my preferred listen.
Living up to its title, this new Blu-ray release starts off with quite an assaultment of bonus material. Two commentaries lead things off: one that was available on the previous Image release, featuring John Carpenter discussing the film. As always it’s a nice blend of technical and day-to-day tidbits on the creation of the film. The other commentary is with production designer Tommy Lee Wallace and Michael Felsher from Red Shirt Pictures. This track is also fun as Felsher is able to basically interview Wallace for the course of the run time and extract some great info. A few interview segments come next with Austin Stoker and Nancy Loomis respectively. The two talk about the film and the impact of the film on their careers. Ported over from previous releases is an interview filmed at The Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles. It's a bit hard to hear at times, but a fun Q and A. Finishing things up are a stills gallery, some radio spots, a trailer and the option to watch the film with the isolated musical score.
John Carpenter’s ode to the beloved Westerns of his formative years with an urban edge, Assault on Precinct 13 is a dark ride into humanity, exploring the survivalist theme Carpenter would revisit so many times in the future; most notably in The Thing. It’s also a surprisingly touching film about finding support and friendship in the most unlikely places when faced with dire circumstances. In an interesting way, it provides commentary on the gang violence that would mark Los Angeles in the succeeding decade after the film’s release. Carpenter fans will no doubt want to pick up this Blu-ray from Scream Factory, as there are quite a few great new bonus features, primarily a new commentary with longtime Carpenter friend and collaborator Tommy Lee Wallace. For me, Assault on Precinct 13 is the film when Carpenter stood up and demanded attention and I would recommend it command yours as well.
Film Score: 3.5/5 Disc Score: 3.5/5