#9 in my ranking of John Carpenter’s films.
Well, John Carpenter really loved Howard Hawks and George A. Romero, huh? His second film, Assault on Precinct 13, is a mashup of Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead so obvious that it could have been a concept conceived by Max Landis. That’s not the denigrate the film which is a perfectly solid urban thriller with strong character work and a wonderful sense of efficiency, but jeez, the mashup is just so on the nose, you know?
The film is about a remote, mostly decommissioned police station in Los Angeles, the center of an explosion of violence that dominates the film’s final half. In order to get there, though, Carpenter lays out a series of individuals that all coincidentally end up in the same place. First and foremost is Austin Stoker’s Lieutenant Ethan Bishop, first day in the department and given the unenviable task of babysitting the nearly decommissioned Anderson precinct in the middle of the night shift, shuttling calls off to other precincts and mostly just minding the store. When his prison transfer bus needs to make a stop to help a sick prisoner, there gets added Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), a prisoner on death row along with Tony Burton’s Wells. The fourth important character is Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), a receptionist in the precinct. There are others, of course, but the numbers get whittled down pretty quickly to those four.
It would have been a relatively quiet night except the leaders of the local gang, Street Thunder, have taken a blood oath. I’m still a bit unclear how the opening of the film, showing several gang members gunned down by police, leads to the leaders of the gang trolling the streets of Los Angeles for a random victim. They eventually choose an ice cream truck driver, killing a little girl in the process (the main source of controversy around the film upon its original release), and the father of the girl chases them down, shoots one of them, and then retreats to the precinct. This opening feels needlessly convoluted to me. I’m unclear how the opening relates to everything that comes afterwards since the gang’s target wasn’t any police officer but random people. The blood oath that the gang leaders make right after but before they go looking for victims goes entirely without words, so I’m unsure of who they’re pledging themselves to fight until the death against. The gang, overall, is incredibly dehumanized, having no dialogue and becoming little more than a faceless horde that our heroes must fight against. I’m okay with that, it provides greater time to focus on our heroes which is a good thing, but the unclarity around the beginning of the action, which really dominates the first half hour of the film, kind of irritates me.
The focus on the heroes, though, really does help the film. When Carpenter was inspired by Hawks’ Rio Bravo, it wasn’t just the conceit of waiting in a jail with prisoners for the cavalry to arrive in the face of a threat. There was also the focus on character based storytelling. Wilson, for instance, has a wonderful scene in the bus talking to the man in charge of his transfer about who he is as a person. He’s not really a bad guy, but he is an a-hole. And maybe, one day, he’ll tell him how he got the name Napoleon. Ethan Bishop has great moments, especially with Leigh, where he explains that he grew up just a few blocks away in this terrible part of town and got out on his own effort. The movie’s only 90 minutes long, so we don’t have nearly as much in here as Hawks had in Rio Bravo, but the effort is both well done and effective. The lack of anything approximating a three-dimensional antagonist helps, providing more time to give us these little moments, filling out the characters in good ways.
That’s not why this movie is really remembered by most, though. The action elements are gritty, independent, 70s filmmaking at some of its best. Real locations, loud sound effects, large muzzle flashes, and an endless stream of a horde running down hallways and climbing through windows becomes terrifying. The unease of the inhumanity of the horde increases especially in the quieter moments later in the film as things seem to return to normal outside. There’s an inexplicable quality to the antagonists that is helped by the fact that they are completely dehumanized, and it feeds into a rather subtle sense of horror that permeates the movie’s final act.
I feel like the lack of explanation for the horde works against the film in the beginning and for the film in the end. The character work is quite good, providing a solid throughline for the emotional weight of the film through the genre action elements. It’s a solidly good film, and one that shows a more refined promise for Carpenter in his sophomore effort.