Film Review

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

IMDB link
Running time: 1h 31min
Directed by John Carpenter
Written by John Carpenter
Starring Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer

Assault on Precinct 13 is John Carpenter’s (who is known especially for Halloween (1978), Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982), and Big Trouble in Little China (1986)) second feature film. I have seen AoP13 twice now, and while I do think its cult film status is perfectly understandable, I am ambivalent about the film. While there are aspects of AoP13 that deserve praise, especially considering budgetary limitations, it is not consistent in quality – certainly a film of interest given its director, but one which would perhaps otherwise been forgotten.

One of the things Assault on Precinct 13 is known for is the brutal on-screen shooting of a little girl, which jumpstarts the story (the scene is not that gory, but showing violence against a child is always controversial). The tone is unforgivingly harsh in this way, though there are moments of levity peppered in later on. I think the film should get credit for its bravery – not that I condone shooting innocent little girls. It is still shocking to watch, which is not easy to achieve, especially considering it has been over 40 years since the film was released. So thumbs up for this unapologetic abrasiveness.

At least this little girl got to have some ice cream before she was murdered

The film was made with a budget of $100k, but it manages to do a lot with that limited budget. The acting is quite good, and most of the technical aspects are at least competent. I do not think the action is particularly great, but it is not bad either. I should mention that Carpenter is also known for making the music for his films (for the most part, The Thing being one notable exception with an Ennio Morricone score, though it sounds just like it was made by Carpenter anyway), and while the music for AoP13 is a bit repetitive, it fits the film perfectly.

Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) and Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), the cop and the convict, must combine their forces to survive

Despite its seemingly simple narrative, Assault on Precinct 13 is a confusing film: the evil street gang is seemingly devoid of any human qualities, and lacks even the basic instinct of self-preservation. They act like mindless zombies at times, just endlessly streaming in to the besieged police station to be killed en masse. This is, I think, a clear detriment to the film, and it would have worked better if (as others have suggested over the years) the villains of the movie really were zombies, a la George Romero (known, of course, for his genre-defining zombie trilogy Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead (1985)). So we can throw realism out of the window based on how the antagonists behave, but the gunplay is also ludicrous, and the overall logic of the film is not exactly stellar, either. Compared to over the top action like Commando (1985), which I love, the action and shooting comes across as clunky, in a way; it is just so much more obvious that Commando is not a film to take seriously at all, while AoP13 seems to try to have some semblance of “credibility”. AoP13 does have one-liners and a dry-witted criminal-turned-hero in Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), however, so perhaps it should not be judged more harshly than silly 80’s action films.

Maintaining the evil reputation of an evil gang is a lot of work

Essentially Assault on Precinct 13 is a black and white battle of survival against pure evil, and the evil is not really very interesting; the gang is just a mass of never-ending bloodthirsty bastards with no dialogue or personality, almost like enemies out of a bad video game. A good villain/villains is something that elevates material, and is a prerequisite for a film like this to be great – a big part of the reason Die Hard (1988) is so memorable is because of its antagonist Hans Gruber, a character who is both written very well and played superbly by Alan Rickman. And if we compare AoP13 to Commando again, the villains of that film are at the very least memorable and distinct. Zombies (as suggested would make a better opposing force) might be passé by now, but at least they would have a better excuse for lacking personality and intellect. Another good option would have been to expand the gang leaders’ roles in the film, as it stands they are barely introduced and then forgotten about.

Taking a leisurely ride evil gang style

I should mention that the films of John Carpenter have recently been covered by the Blank Check podcast and also (to a lesser extent) by Red Letter Media; this review is obviously not as in-depth as Blank Check’s, so check that out if you are interested to know more about AoP13 or other Carpenter films. I am not familiar with Carpenter’s whole filmography, but I do love The Thing, which is one of the greatest science fiction/horror films ever made, and has perhaps the best practical effects of any film ever made. I am not exactly a fan of Carpenter, but I do enjoy good films, and I think he is a good director – AoP13 is not one of his best, but it is also not his worst.

Napoleon gets a smoke

Despite my criticisms, AoP13 is a decent action thriller – one should go into it not expecting any sort of realism, however. At times the film feels great and you are invested into the story, but at times the opposite is true – something jarring happens that interrupts the “flow” and takes you out of the movie, resulting in a mixed bag. Some will find the film much better than I did, but others will not like it at all (then again that applies to almost everything, as there are as many opinions as there are anuses). The movie is really for fans of the genre and/or of John Carpenter in general, I doubt much enjoyment can be derived from watching it otherwise, but it is only 1.5 hours so not much time will be wasted in the process. I should perhaps note that I have no nostalgia for this film, as I first saw it only a few years ago – I might be more lenient to films that I do have that warm nostalgia feeling for, and vice versa.

Rating: 6.0 / 10

Times I had seen this film prior to this viewing: 1

Would I want to rewatch this film? In the right circumstances, after a long while, maybe.

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