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 13Director: 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.