Movie Reviews 267 – Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Assault on Precinct 13Before John Carpenter became a household name with horror hits Halloween and The Thing he gave us a hint of his many talents with his urban violence feature Assault on Precinct 13. A blend of The Wild Bunch brutality with The Warriors street gang trappings, Carpenter wrote, directed and provided the musical score for this 70’s urban jungle melee that features an overrun and outnumbered police precinct face a quandary evocative of Custer’s last stand at the battle of the Little Bighorn.

Fresh on the force and looking to make an impact, police lieutenant Bishop (Austin Stoker) is disheartened when he is dispatched to a South Central LA precinct in its final hours with the most of the office already moved to new precinct building. Set to shut down permanently the next day, only a handful of administrative staff and one constable remain at precinct 13 when Bishop arrives for what he believes will be a slow and insipid night.

But a local gang known as the ‘Street Thunder’ recently acquired a sizeable shipment of assault rifles and knowing this, authorities had set up a trap in which half a dozen members were slaughtered in cold blood. With the media covering up the mass slaying in their reporting, the four leaders of the gang vow to avenge their fallen brothers. Meanwhile, a bus transporting prisoners to another facility have to make an emergency pit stop and as far as they know precinct 13 is up and running and would make a perfect, secure layover. Among the prisoners is the notorious death row bound Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) whose dislike for cops keeps him constantly shackled, and even that doesn’t deter him from taking pokes whenever the opportunity arises.

Street Thunder decide that a slaying an mobile ice cream salesman in broad daylight will send a clear message to the cops and when a little girl returns to tell the now dead seller that she got the wrong flavor … well putting a bullet through her is just icing on the cake for the ruthless gang. Unfortunately the girls dad is nearby and begins a car chase that leads right to precinct 13 as nightfall approaches. With the girl’s father now in a catatonic state, he enters the precinct which soon finds itself under siege by dozens of well armed thugs just as the prisoners are about to re-embark the bus to continue their trip.

With all communication lines out the isolated group can’t even call for help and it comes down to Bishop, sultry eyed administrator Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), and Napoleon to lead a handful of others to thwart the incursion. Coming in spurts and waves, the barrage of bullets and attempts to bodily infiltrate the building take a huge toll on the never ending stream of gang members, but also comes at a cost to those holed up. Can they last out until help hopefully arrives?

As the storm progresses the precinct staff and prisoners become a cohesive unit, with both sides cooperating and respecting one another in order to stay alive. Through it all a chemistry percolates and teases between Leigh and Napoleon, as evidenced by Napoleon’s comment to Leigh “You’re pretty good.” referring to her gunplay in holding off a bunch of gang members in a corridor to which she replies “I can be bad.”

While not a horror movie the blood flows freely. Instead of the zombie infestations we are so familiar with today the attackers here are smarter (well a bit smarter anyhow) and they have tons of guns. The film is a microcosm of Carpenter’s Escape from New York which he would go on to make five years later and which proved to be Assault on Precinct 13 on steroids.

Like many horror movies of the day there are some pretty evident logical hurdles that have to be ignored to enjoy the film, but Carpenter’s familiar percussive synth soundtrack will help to make up for some of the faults.

I haven’t seen the 2005 remake yet so I can’t compare the two, but I somehow doubt it can capture the grit and grime of the original.


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