The films of John Carpenter make me instantly nostalgic. Just the opening credits of any of his early films, whether they be for 'Halloween,' 'Escape from New York,' or 'The Thing,' transport me back to my formative years as a young moviegoer in the '70s and '80s. His pulpy genre plots, minimalist visual style, and classic electro-scores (usually self-composed) are now like an old friend. Some of my fondest moving going memories involve his flicks, and regardless of the erratic quality of his later oeuvre, I simply can't see the name "John Carpenter" on the marquee and not crack a smile.
1976's 'Assault on Precinct 13' is another such Carpenter cult classic. One of the director's earliest efforts, predating even his smash success two years later with 'Halloween,' it's a tough and gritty exploitation flick with all of the hallmarks of classic Carpenter. Borrowing heavily from the genre films that inspired Carpenter as a kid, mostly notably 'Rio Bravo,' it also mixes time-honored Western and cop-thriller conventions with a decidedly more rough and cynical '70s sensibility. Straying from the horror and sci-fi that would eventually prove Carpenter's calling card, it has nevertheless, with time, emerged as one of his finest and most well-regarded efforts.
A conventional plot synopsis of 'Assault on Precinct 13' doesn't really do its justice, so I'll just give the raw outline of the setup. The story opens with a vicious gang, the Street Thunder, whose four ringleaders make a blood-pact to take down all of Los Angeles. Eventually laying siege to a local police station (the precinct 13 of the title), it will be up to the inhabitants inside to stave off the gang and save Los Angeles. Making matters more complicated (and the film's characters and themes oh so much more ambiguous and compelling), the precinct's Lt. Bishop (Austin Stoker), will have to work with two hardened prisoners, Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) and Wells (Tony Burton), if he's to protect the other inhabitants of precinct 13.
Like all of Carpenter's films, the plot of 'Assault of Precinct 13' is deceptively simplistic. But what always typified early Carpenter is how his style serves his subject. 'Assault on Precinct 13' gets under your skin so thoroughly because of small details that are, at first, easy to miss. Sure, his plink-plonk score sounds a bit cheesy and obvious, but it's unnerving how the members of Street Thunder have so little dialogue. They are as mythic, and potent as symbols of unmotivated wanton violence, as Michael Myers in 'Halloween.' Carpenter is also fluid in his camera moves (this is his first film shot in PanaVision 2.35:1), fostering suspense because we have to wait (im)patiently, constantly scanning the frame with baited breath, for what will come next. With Carpenter, style doesn't triumph over substance, it is the substance.
Performances are often overlooked in a film like this, and if 'Assault on Precinct 13' is not particularly deep in terms of characterization, it's smarter than you'd think. Napoleon Wilson is a character in the Carpenter canon that probably should go down as one of his most iconic, along with Snake Plissken, Michael Myers, and Jack Burton. Johnson perfectly channels all the hard-boiled anti-heroes of the films of Carpenter's youth, while Burton's Wells welcomingly recalls such Carpenter sidekicks as Keith David (in both 'The Thing' and 'They Live'). Carpenter also populates the rest of 'Assault on Precinct 13' with a stable of actors that would star in many of his future films, including such fan faves as Charles Cyphers, Nancy Loomis, and (in a very fun if nasty small role) future 'Witch Mountain' Disney star Kim Richards.
In the end, 'Assault on Precinct 13' may not actually be a great film. It's simply a fun, well-made B-movie, and ground zero for understanding Carpenter as a cult auteur. To be honest, some of its more dated elements (particularly the score, the slow pacing, and a couple of weaker performances) keep it from truly attaining absolute classic status for me. But that doesn't mean that any self-respecting genre fan should miss it.
Image Entertainment previously released 'Assault on Precinct 13' on DVD in a nicely-remastered transfer. This first-ever-high-def version looks even better, with a surprisingly sharp and attractive image for a film now nearing its 35th anniversary.
This 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1) enjoys a very nice source. The print is quite clean, with only a smidgen of dirt here or there to distract. Grain is present, but it's very film-like and in keeping with the movie's vintage. Colors are fairly vibrant and almost betray the '70s origins, with nice reds, blues and oranges. Fleshtones are also good. Detail is perhaps not on par with a new release, but I was pleasantly surprised with the transfer's sharpness and depth. Shadow delineation is about the only area truly lacking by comparison, with some fall-off into black (due in large part to the film's low-budget limitations). For a decades-old catalog release, I was impressed with 'Assault on Precinct 13.'
'Assault on Precinct 13' has been remastered in DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround (48kHz/16-bit). Unfortunately, I wasn't that blown away by the upgrade -- the film's mono origins certainly shine through here. (Note that Image has also included the film's original mono soundtrack in Dolby Digital, for the purists.)
Surrounds suffer from a processed sound. Discrete effects are loud and blaring, and sound disingenuous with the rest of the mix. Subtle ambiance isn't really present. The enjoyable retro score does sound pretty good, but it's also not that well-integrated into the soundfield. There is also a harshness to dynamic range which is typical of '70s soundtracks, though to be fair the mix is clean and not particularly irritating. Low bass is adequate. Kudos to Image for remastering 'Assault on Precinct 13' in high-res audio, though I can't say the results thrilled me all that much.
This Blu-ray replicates all of the bonus features found on the previous special edition DVD. It's not an extravagant package, but for a film from 1976 it's a nice assortment of extras.
'Assault on Precinct 13' is a true cult classic, and considered one of director John Carpenter's best. I am a fan, though not quite as sold -- the pace is sometimes sluggish and some of Carpenter's more '70s touches are dated. This Blu-ray is mighty nice, with well-mastered video and audio, and welcome supplements. 'Assault on Precinct 13' is a must-see for cult movie fans, and a film that remains quite entertaining after over three decades.