The leap that John Carpenter took from Dark Star to Assault On Precinct 13 is just bananas, especially if you watch both films in relatively quick succession like I did. The former is super ambitious, but not particularly balanced in the ways of tone, while the latter comes out guns-blazing (puns!) and doesn’t let up for an hour and a half.
The plot is fairly simple with an LA police headquarters shutting down and a gang laying siege to it the last night it’s functioning. A few cops are hanging around including Bishop (Austin Stoker) and office manager Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), but the balance gets thrown off when a bus traveling between prisons stops there because one of the criminals is sick. This brings Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) and Wells (Tony Burton) into the picture along with a whole lot more back-watching because we’re never quite sure if they’re going to turn those guns on the traditional good guys.
I know I’ve seen Assault before, but I didn’t remember too much of it. Of course, I knew about the ice cream scene, but I thought it took place much earlier in the film. Instead, it’s at about the 30 minute mark which makes it even more surprising if you’ve never seen the film before because there hadn’t been any violence since the very beginning of the film. That iconic and disturbing scene also happens to really kick the film into gear.
I got a little worried during the initial firefight between the cops and the gang members because it didn’t feel as intense as I remembered it. It was still good and there’s a rising sense of dread, but there was just something not grabbing me just yet. But, that didn’t last long. Once the first volley ended and you’ve got a much smaller group trying to figure out what the hell is going on in this blasted-apart precinct building, that’s when Carpenter really hits his stride with the kind of mounting fear and terror so built into his next film, Halloween.
From there, the movie’s all about this small group of cops, secretaries and cons (really one of each) trying to figure out a way to get out of there alive. It’s the dynamic between Bishop, Leigh and Napoleon that takes center stage here and gets to shine from a trio of actors I don’t know much about. In fact, I realized while watching this movie that it’s got to be the Carpenter film with the fewest famous people, right? Even Dark Star had screenwriter Dan O’Bannon in a role, but aside form future Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills star Kim Richards (the ill-fated ice cream girl), I couldn’t tell you anything about any of these people.
Anyway, this movie is said to be Carpenter’s nod to Rio Bravo and Night Of The Living Dead. I can’t speak to the former because I’ve never seen it, but I just watched the Night remake, so it was pretty fresh in my mind and fully see how influential that was on this film. The stuck-in-a-place-under-siege-by-an-unstoppable-group elements in both films are very clear. You could also draw parallels between Night‘s Ben and Assault‘s Bishop, but probably more in the remake than the original, because the race element doesn’t actually come into play in the story. Aside from that, there’s the joining of unrelated people to fight off something they don’t understand. And, that’s actually something I really enjoyed about this movie, the fact that these people have next-to-no clue about why these punks are trying to destroy them.
All in all, I’d say that Assault On Precinct 13 is really the place to start if you’re looking to go through Carpenter’s oeuvre. In addition to that, it’s just an awesome movie that should be seen. Whatever you think about Dark Star, it doesn’t really feel like part of his larger group of films. However, Assault is definitely right in there, even if it doesn’t have the mystical, supernatural, futuristic or sci-fi elements you might expect if you’ve seen his greatest hits like Halloween, Escape From New York, They Live and Big Trouble In Little China. I’m most familiar with Halloween, so it was cool to see how he went from following real people being attacked by other real people to real people being hunted by a supernatural killer.
I’ll be watching Halloween next, though I’m not sure how in-depth I’ll be going with the post because I’ve already written about it twice. After that, I’ll get his two TV movies Someone’s Watching Me and Elvis from Netflix which will be fun because I haven’t seen either of them!