Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores the cowboy action of ‘Assault on Precinct 13’
Assault on Precinct 13. Halloween. The Fog. Escape from New York. The Thing. Christine. Starman. Big Trouble in Little China. Prince of Darkness. They Live.
No filmmaker has ever had a better run than John Carpenter did from 1976 through 1988. Say what you will about his later films (In the Mouth of Madness aside), but his ten features across this twelve year period are a collection of very good to great to flat-out masterpieces, and it’s a feat no other director has matched. It’s made even more impressive seeing the films straddle a broad range of genres including action/thrillers, slashers, supernatural horror, fantasy/comedy, and science-fiction paired with horror, romantic drama, and social commentary.
Carpenter’s always struggled with mass appeal – a sad but unsurprising reality – but those who love his films do so loudly and proudly. All ten of these titles have their very vocal supporters, but some get more attention than others. To that end, while The Thing is his inarguable masterpiece, I want to shine a light on his first real feature – a film that still stands as one of his best.
1976’s Assault on Precinct 13 is a siege film that balances its action sequences and bloodletting with a strong sense of character and a surprising amount of humor. It’s a fast watch at roughly ninety minutes, but Carpenter uses his time wisely by introducing the various character threads/stories and then letting them all collide together at the titular precinct. There’s a progressiveness here too in the casting as our heroic trio consists of a black man, a white man, and a woman, and the attacking gang is a grungy, grimacing Benetton ad of interracial discontent. Carpenter never draws attention to it and instead just allows it to be, and while it remains an uncommon site in films even today it was something fairly unique in the ‘70s.
Carpenter’s love of westerns, particularly the films of Howard Hawks and John Ford, is occasionally visible in his work, but this is the closest he ever came to crafting his own entry in America’s greatest film genre. He’s written a couple (El Diablo, Blood River) that others directed for television in the early ’90s, but Assault – essentially Carpenter loosely riffing on Hawks’ classic, Rio Bravo – sees him crafting a modern-day western about a small, eccentric group of gunslingers forced to fight an amorphous, nameless horde swarming just outside their walls.
Assault on Precinct 13 opens on a handful of gang-bangers sneaking their way through the night before police cut them down in a hail of gunfire. Other gang members declare a blood oath of revenge against the city and set out on an ominous daytime drive that sees them targeting random civilians through the crosshairs of their weapons. Carpenter’s score – featuring one of his best main themes – gives the scenes a subdued, electric suspense as our attention shifts to a man and his young daughter (Kim Richards) driving lost on the deserted streets. He stops to call for directions while she approaches an ice cream truck in search of a vanilla twist cone, and what follows sets the rest of the film’s events in motion.
This is just a terrifically edited scene – by Carpenter himself, under the name John T. Chance, which is John Wayne’s character in Rio Bravo – and the girl’s death remains a delightfully shocking turn. Carpenter has hinted at a regret in killing her like this, but if there’s any positive to his lack of immense success it’s that he can’t pull a George Lucas/Steven Spielberg and go back to digitally alter the scene in some insulting fashion.
Her distraught father gets a fast revenge on the shooter (Frank Doubleday, who later re-teamed with Carpenter as Romero in Escape from New York), but the wheel of violence keeps turning as the rest of the gang chases him into a mostly empty police precinct building. Precinct 9, Division 13 (per earlier dialogue and in direct contrast to the distributor-assigned title) is closed and currently occupied by two police officers including the new “sheriff” in town, Lt. Bishop (Austin Stoker), who’s been tasked with babysitting its final night. Two office workers remain as well including the very calm, cool, and collected Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) who shows Carpenter ahead of the curve in regard to strong, capable female characters two years before helping jump-start the “final girl” conceit with Halloween.
Late arrivals to the impending party come in the form of a prison transport bus containing four cops and three prisoners, one of whom is sick and necessitates an unplanned stop-over at the precinct. Carpenter regular Charles Cyphers is among them as the man in charge, but the star of the group is one Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) – a convicted murderer on his way to death row.
Like a prototype Snake Plissken, Wilson is a criminal whose crimes seem almost forgivable in light of his charm, personality, and attitude. All he wants is a smoke, and after repeatedly and rudely being shot down by those around him he’s taken aback by the decency of Bishop’s response. “No, sorry,” says the cop to the criminal, and the look on Wilson’s face is of a man seeing kindness in the last place he would have expected. It’s a fantastic back and forth that continues through the film as the mismatched pair, along with Leigh and a second prisoner, are forced to work together against a greater enemy.
The banter between these characters is playful, funny, and human – think less precious Quentin Tarantino – and sees a variety of asides work their way into a stressful situation. The unanswered origin of Napoleon’s name even feels in some ways like an inspiration for Pulp Fiction’s glowing briefcase contents. Carpenter’s collected some memorable character ensembles across his filmography, from the highs of The Thing to the lows of Ghosts of Mars, and this motley crew sits near the top. The 2005 remake of Assault fares better than most reboots of Carpenter’s films, but it’s a competent action film at best having traded in the original’s character work for unnecessarily complicated subplots and set-pieces. There’s nothing in it as simple and effective as this exchange below.
There’s a goofy earnestness to this scene and to so many others in Carpenter’s film, and they work to set viewers at ease even as the tension and suspense are being ramped up for the next action beat. The actors put us firmly in their corner through character dialogue, but it’s the quiet expressions silently passing respect and affection between the three leads that stay with us.
Assault on Precinct 13 is a tight, entertaining thriller that also delights with humor and effortlessly memorable characters. It’s rough at times as its age and budget reveal themselves, but’s it’s never less than energetic and engaging. It lacks the bigger budgets, recognizable stars, and reputations of Carpenter’s other great films, but it’s every bit as deserving of your own respect and affection.