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Assault on Precinct 13

Great filmmakers of the past — such as Hitchcock, Ford, and Hawks — normally learned their craft over a number of years and several different projects. But the critical success of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane introduced the idea that a director could (and perhaps should) arrive on the scene as a genius-in-waiting. And such a notion has gained even more prominence over the past two decades — we've come to believe that a director's first film will indicate the archetypes and themes that will dominate a body of work that has yet to be established. John Carpenter may have worked on the student production Dark Star (which was expanded for a theatrical release in 1974), but his first professional motion picture was 1976's Assault on Precinct 13, which happens to feature many of the least-appealing elements of a debut work: homages aplenty, "cool" character names (which also are homages), and special effects done on a shoestring budget. But despite these drawbacks, the Carpenter aesthetic that his fans know and love still shines through. Assault on Precinct 13 might be the most impressive low-budget debut since George Romero's Night of the Living Dead — this exciting action picture remains one of the high points of Carpenter's nearly 30-year career. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is on his first night's assignment as a police lieutenant. Unfortunately, instead of getting in the thick of the action, he's assigned a babysitting job watching over Precinct Nine's station-house (yes, the title of the film makes no sense). Checking in, it seems that it's a ghost-town of a station with only a receptionist (Carpenter regular Nancy Loomis), a secretary (Laurie Zimmer), and an old guard (Henry Brandon, best known as Scar in The Searchers). But unbeknownst to Bishop, the police slaughtered several gang members the day before and the remaining hoodlums have pledged a blood oath of revenge, intent to wreak havoc on anybody who gets in their way (a touch that links the gang members into Hollywood-movie Indians, cementing the picture's Neo-Western feel). And when a father takes his revenge on the gang member who killed his daughter, he finds himself at Precinct Nine, marking the station as the gang's target of destruction. Meanwhile, a prison-bus also takes refuge at Nine with a sick inmate, and notorious murderer "Napoleon" Wilson (Darwin Joston) is along for the ride. After cutting the power and phone lines, the gang tries to take control of the police station, forcing Bishop to trust Wilson to help him fend off the invaders — it's up to this small, unusual band to stay alive long enough to get help from the outside world.

*          *          *

Though obviously indebted to the entire world of Howard Hawks (most specifically Rio Bravo) and borrowing the siege elements of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, this early Carpenter effort is too sharp for those obvious appropriations to be of much concern — at least Carpenter takes these themes and ideas and makes them his own. But as a "first" movie, one can foresee the sort of pictures the director has spent the rest of his career producing. There's the cool, laconic anti-hero (Joston's Wilson seems the brethren of Snake Plissken from the Escape films, and pretty much every lead male character in a Carpenter film). There's the whole Neo-Western tone. And this probably is the most important movie to discover just why people love John Carpenter so much; his archetypes are at their most obvious here. But the picture also serves as a model for low-budget effectiveness and narrative reduction, as the story builds to its conclusion by leveraging all of the elements that should be working against it. The limited locations and small cast are the production's best assets, and we get sucked in to the characters the further it goes along. Carpenter's later movies would have a more obvious playfulness to them — here the attitude is so serious that it more closely approximates the gallows-humor of Howard Hawks, while the action has a more modern flavor. And if influence begets influence, one can also trace a through line of the unlikely partners in this film to John Woo's The Killer, and more obviously Carpenter's own Ghosts of Mars. But be that as it may, Assault on Precinct 13 is a solidly entertaining action film that could very well be this director's most-solid effort. Image Entertainment's second DVD release presents the film for the first time in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) with monaural DD 2.0 audio. The picture quality is slightly better than the first disc, although there are rough patches (undoubtedly due to the source material) and some noticeable wear around the reel changes. One of the first DVDs on the market back in 1997, this 2003 upgrade includes everything from the first version (Carpenter's Laserdisc commentary and the theatrical trailer), which are welcome returns. New supplements include a 23-minute interview with Carpenter and Austin Stoker, as well as a 16-minute still gallery. The interview is poorly shot and the audio quality is lacking, but Carpenter answers some good questions about the film (though Stoker is left with little to say). The still gallery features some nice behind-the-scenes photos, script excerpts, storyboards, and press and promo material. Also included are two radio spots and an isolated score (done by John Carpenter and director Tommy Lee Wallace) on a separate track. Keep-case.
—DSH



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