Welcome to the Jungle: 'Assault on Precinct 13'

John Carpenter's classic siege thriller isn't quite the old Hollywood throwback it's reputed to be, but it offers a striking reworking of genre mechanics and imagery to make up for its unsentimental atmosphere.

Assault on Precinct 13

Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Tony Burton, Nancy Kyes
Distributor: Shout! Factory
US release date: 2013-11-19

The first fully visible object in Assault on Precinct 13 is a gun. In near silence and under cover of darkness, members of a California gang attempt to evade capture after stealing a high volume of firearms and summarily meet their end in abrupt fashion. With little warning, shots erupt from around them and in a matter of seconds their corpses litter a narrow corridor, spotlights illuminating the long barrels of shotguns held by unseen officers.

The next scene, without intelligible dialogue, shows other gang members reacting to the news by cutting into the flesh of their arms with jackknives, swearing a blood oath of revenge. So far, the vocabulary we have to work with is elementary to thrillers. It’s guns, knives, blood, and smoke. We’re in South Central, Los Angeles, 1976. Welcome to the jungle.

One of the more striking images the film sneaks in is a basic establishing shot of the precinct from which death row inmate Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) and two other prisoners are transported. Inside the glass-paneled booth at the gate stands a lone guard centered perfectly through the window in silhouette, facing backward, hands on hips like the very emblem of authority. This picture’s reputation now largely rests on its perceived status as a throwback to the genre exercises of Howard Hawks, particularly the similarly siege-themed Rio Bravo. There’s a lot to unpack in that comparison, but shots like the above underscore that director John Carpenter is, for the most part, less interested in his human players as characters than as objects to evoke a particular atmosphere.

The world of Precinct 13 remains hidden to many of the characters until they’re in the thick of the action, which doesn’t really explode until almost two-thirds of the way through. Once the siege gets underway, Carpenter’s modernist tendencies reveal themselves in a few striking moments. First, the harrowing hail of silenced gunfire that sends the heroes diving for cover, glass popping, cracking, and shattering via elaborate squib placement that simulates an environment turning violently on its inhabitants.

Second, the sign of the gang’s blood oath or cholo, placed outside the precinct as a tattered sheet and pool of blood, sends convict Wells (Tony Burton) into a fit of terror as he explains their situation. Third, the image of Wilson and Lt. Ethan Bishop charging the last group of killers with a shield adapted from a sign reading “Support Your Local Police Department".

This last shot is symptomatic of the picture’s worldview, which is not apocalyptic so much as ruinous, the siege literally taking place in an abandoned police station and figuratively in the decaying remnants of classical genre. There are traces of turns that a director like Hawks would have taken with the material in Carpenter’s sparse screenplay, like the unspoken but obvious attraction between Wilson and Laurie Zimmer’s Leigh. Yet there’s no happy ending for the two characters, ultimately separated after a long look between them betraying no obvious sentiment. Wilson seems to shrug off the possibility that things might work out between them in an earlier conversation: “I was born out of time.”

The film’s most iconic scene and first kill arrives early, a shocking moment of violence that ruptures the carefully calibrated silence of Carpenter’s neighborhoods. Said scene, which should remain unmentioned for the lucky few who haven’t experienced this picture, takes place outdoors in a neighborhood with empty streets, as if the usual inhabitants have received advance warning and are keeping out of the line of fire. It’s subtle alterations to the expected settings of such a thriller that keep politics, for the most part, out of the picture; along with the aforementioned siege scene at the precinct, the suggestion in this first killing that the citizens of Anderson have foreseen the violence contributes to the idea of the gangmembers as some elemental force rather than actual products of systematic disorder.

Crucially, the casting remains a model of racial diversity. The first killing is committed by a white gang member, the protagonist is a black man (though his “bad day at the office” arc is significantly less compelling than the enigmatic, and white, Wilson), while one convict is black and the other white. The picture’s feminist theme is somewhat less sturdy than it’s often praised to be. While Leigh holds her own in battle and gets a couple of noticeably tough reactions to threats of imminent violence, there’s still the undeniably sexualized shot of her holding the barrel of Wells’ (waist-high) gun. No less, her final shot in the film sees her retreating to receive medical attention and leaving behind the hinted-at romantic union with Wilson, who gets a dignified coda and Bishop’s valuable respect; in Carpenter’s revised take on the values of genre cinema, that’s a disappointing constant.

Scream Factory’s Blu-ray update of Assault on Precinct 13 preserves the well-balanced colors of Carpenter’s otherwise dark thriller, with a blue-brown schematic that keeps a handsome hue present during scenes in which light appears only in patches. The sampling of extras are rewarding, but far from a definitive package. Interviews with Austin Stoker (Bishop), Nancy Kyes (Julie), art director and SFX editor Tommy Lee Wallace, and Carpenter, along with his typically valuable feature commentary comprise an appeasing if not entirely new way of appreciating the picture.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

With The Perfect Nothing Catalog, composer Conrad Winslow explores attention and arrangement with assistance from the Cadillac Moon Ensemble and Aaron Roche.

The album cover, in a way, tells you everything. It's simple: a cardboard box with two pieces of tape: one from the box's original packing, the other haphazardly slapped on. They imply two separate states–ordering and reordering, original state and redefined context. The Perfect Nothing Catalog, the debut recording from Alaska-born, Brooklyn-based composer Conrad Winslow, invokes this very idea of objects and ideas placed, shuffled, and replaced, provoking questions of how arrangement shapes meaning.

Keep reading... Show less

In 'Downsizing' Shrinking Means Big Money and Bigger Problems

Matt Damon and Jason Sudeikis in Downsizing (2017) (Photo by Photo credit: Paramount Pictures - © 2017 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.) (IMDB)

Being the size of a dog's chew toy might not be to everybody's taste, but it's certainly a shortcut to a kind of upper middle-class luxury unobtainable for most of humanity.

Just imagine you're a character in Alexander Payne's circuitous and occasionally perceptive new comedy Downsizing: You were pre-med, but you dropped out of school to take care of your mother. Now you're an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks. You and your wife are treading water both economically and in your relationship. But still, you face every day with just enough gee-whiz optimism that life never quite turns into a grind. But then, something happens. Some Swedish researchers figured out a way to shrink the average human down to a mere five inches tall without any adverse side effects. There are risks to avoid, like not leaving metal fillings in during the shrinking process (exploding heads, you know).

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.