Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is one of those films that will stay with you for a while. It’s vicious, nasty, violent, and absolutely thrilling. It’s one of the most memorable of 1970s action films. It has a great original score. And it’s just absolutely compelling.
Assault on Precinct 13 is basically Rio Bravo (1959) meets Night of the Living Dead (1968). A mass amount of criminals start laying siege to the titular police station to kill Lawson (Martin West), a man who killed one of their own as revenge for his daughter’s (Kim Richards) death. Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) must take charge and protect those inside. He is aided by criminal Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) and a secretary named Leigh (Laurie Zimmer).
John Carpenter’s screenplay and direction is ferocious, taught, and brilliant. We spend around 40 minutes with build up as all the characters arrive at their crucial, pivotal moments that draw them into the main storyline of the siege. This build up is slow and suspenseful. Carpenter grabs by the throat and doesn’t let go. And you know he’s playing for keeps when one of the very first gunned down is a small child, initiating the main plot of the film. It’s a horrifyingly violent moment but brilliantly orchestrated. No one is safe. What comes next is a complete bloodbath as gang member after gang member assaults the police station. In a series of brilliantly executed waves of violence, Carpenter shows you the full scale of what urban warfare could be. It’s shocking stuff.
Carpenter’s score also is a major contribution to the film’s success. His synth score works to build atmosphere and suspense. It’s endlessly catchy, and when married with the scenes focusing on the ever-silent gang members, arming up, patrolling LA, and then laying siege to the precinct, it helps make them all the more scary.
Another notable component of the film, which is compelling even to this day, is the fact that Lt. Bishop is played by a black man. Austin Stoker is great in the role, and it’s also wonderful to see that he doesn’t craft an over-the-top, stereotypical portrayal of an oversexed, overly violent hero that was so often the norm in Blaxploitation cinema of the 1970s. Rather, Bishop is a normal man, and Stoker keeps it that way. His race is never commented upon, itself rather revolutionary – he is just black, and there’s nothing more that’s needed to be said about it. Even today I can’t really think of that many mainstream action roles for black males or females that do it like this, so to see it in one of the earliest action films was truly a surprise.
The characters are all well acted by their actors, although Carpenter’s script doesn’t give them much personality. They’re all simply drawn, but they don’t have to be complex characters here. Bishop is the straight-forward cop who simply wants to do his job and survive; Napoleon Wilson is the criminal on his way to death row for murder but is nonetheless an honourable man, wanting nothing more than a smoke; and Leigh the secretary whose got plenty of guts and is interested in Wilson. Nothing complicated here, but the simplicity of the characters and story is refreshing.
Assault on Precinct 13 is one of those films that critics have debated endlessly as to what its about. Some say urban warfare, some say the fall of the modern city – it goes on and on. Ultimately I don’t think any of this critical interpretation matters that much. This film has one goal and one goal only, to thrill and shock the audience as much as possible. You’ll be glued to the edge of your seats in this startlingly violent and ferocious film. It’s one of the most enjoyable and relentless action films that I’ve seen and an earlier masterpiece from Carpenter that ranks as highly as Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982). A must see.