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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars They really don't make 'em like this anymore, April 8, 2005
This review is from: Assault on Precinct 13 (Widescreen Edition) (DVD)
Before there was Halloween, there was Assault on Precinct 13, John Carpenter's second movie and arguably his first masterpiece. Fans of his later work should be warned though, there's no traditional horror or supernatural elements here, just one of history's all-time great low-budget action movies. By now the plot should be familiar to just about anyone reading this review: a lone cop and a couple of lifers have to defend a virtually abandoned police station against a street gang's onslaught. However, it's what Carpenter does with this concept that makes Assault on Precinct 13 such an exciting and memorable watch. It's a brilliantly executed pressure-cooker of a movie, thrusting a few decidedly disparate people into an unimaginably dire situation and letting us watch them as they try to figure out what to do about it. Although Carpenter has made much of the influence of classic westerns on this movie (Rio Bravo in particular), there are also ample doses of the eerie minimalism and stark brutality that Carpenter brought to Halloween, along with the tense, claustrophobic atmosphere that characterized much of Night of the Living Dead. Released in 1976 against the backdrop of escalating violence and decay in America's cities, the movie plays perfectly into fears of urban crime, as a small band of heroes are literally confronted with an onslaught from a small army of gang members. At bottom, though, Assault on Precinct 13 is a story of courage and heroism under the worst of circumstances, and it accomplishes this difficult task without being the slightest bit preachy, which may be even more impressive.

The movie certainly begins in a harrowing enough fashion, as the opening sequence shows six members of a gang known as Street Thunder being cut down by police gunfire in a darkened alley, followed by their gang's (oddly multiracial) leadership swearing a highly unpleasant blood oath vowing revenge for the deaths of their colleagues. From there the movie slows to a snail's pace for a while, establishing the important plot points and characters and steadily building suspense as the members of Street Thunder cruise the streets of the ghetto looking for a suitable target. However, this relative quiet is shattered in a most dramatic fashion in the now-infamous incident in which a little girl meets her unfortunate end at the hands of a machine-like gang leader (played in extremely menacing fashion by Frank Doubleday) while her father chats on a pay phone a few yards away. Carpenter admits in the DVD's commentary track that this scene would virtually guarantee an NC-17 rating today, and it's hard to disagree: it's almost unspeakably horrific, both in its unflinching violence and in the utter anguish that ensues when Dad sees the gang's handiwork. Things don't get much better when the girl's father exacts some revenge of his own on the shooter, as he winds up getting more than he bargained for and kicking the plot into high gear in the process when the rest of the gang pursues him into a nearly abandoned police station.

This admittedly obvious plot device doesn't just get the action of the movie in motion, it establishes an important pattern: long periods of exposition punctuated by explosions of hard-hitting visceral action. Made for about $100,000 (a tiny amount even 30 years ago), Assault on Precinct 13 is hardly a big-budget Hollywood extravaganza in the vein of Die Hard or Total Recall, but its cheap and simplistic feel actually winds up working in its favor. With virtually no money for special effects or big-name stars, Assault on Precinct 13 succeeds due largely to its emphasis on mood, economical dialogue, and characterization. Much like the aforementioned Night of the Living Dead, this movie examines the dynamics that unfold when a group of strangers are thrown together and forced to confront a mass of nameless, faceless enemies lurking right outside. More so than in Night of the Living Dead, though, here we really get an idea of the characters as people, particularly the three principals: Austin Stoker's amiable (and classically Afroed) black cop Ethan Bishop; Lynn Zimmer's determined secretary Leigh; and of course Darwin Joston's iconic convict Napoleon Wilson. From his icy stare to his sardonic wit to his considerable azz-kicking skills (check out that textbook arm break on the thug in the holding cell), Wilson is right up there with Eddie Murphy's Reggie Hammond from 48 Hrs. in the pantheon of film's most memorable antiheroes-turned-heroes.

Still, for all its character and plot development, Assault on Precinct 13 is at its best when it's in full-bore action mode. The violence is actually somewhat sporadic and generally not particularly graphic, but when it gets going it really gets going. The movie's most thrilling sequence undoubtedly occurs when the members of Street Thunder stage a full-scale assault on the police station and its inhabitants greet them with guns blazing. Watching Bishop, Wilson, and even Leigh dispense justice in the form of hot lead is itself more than worth any rental fee you might pay. It's actually somewhat reminiscent of the legendary climactic church standoff in John Woo's The Killer, which is of course a good thing 'cause that movie rules.

Fittingly, Image Entertainment has decked out this new special edition DVD with loads of extras, most notably a full-length commentary track from Carpenter and an interview with Carpenter and Stoker (though mostly Carpenter, which is too bad because Stoker's a funny guy) filmed a few years ago at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. The commentary and interview are full of insights from Carpenter, from descriptions of the film's technical aspects to the art of low-budget filmmaking to discussion of the film's influences and the aftermath of its release. There's also a brief, but extremely hilarious, revelation by Carpenter of how he managed to avoid getting Assault slapped with an X rating. Great stuff, just like this movie. You'd have to be nuts to avoid picking up the DVD, especially given its low price.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 6, 2008 2:54:18 PM PDT
Dutch says:
You got it right!

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 5, 2011 1:43:08 PM PDT
J-Dubs says:
Just saw this flick last night and enjoyed it a lot. Its one of the few Carpenter movies I havent seen. Good stuff

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 16, 2012 1:09:42 PM PDT
Dynamite review- keep up the good work....
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