Portions of this review also appear in Peter Bracke's coverage of the film's previous Blu-ray release.
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.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Shout! Factory brings 'Assault on Precinct 13' to Blu-ray as a repackaged Collector's Edition under the distributor's Scream Factory line. The Region A locked, BD50 disc is housed inside a blue, eco-elite case with brand new reversible cover art and cardboard slipcover. At startup, viewers are taken to a basic menu screen with music and full-motion clips. Also, if you buy direct from the Shout! Factory website, fans can get an exclusive, limited edition poster of the newly commissioned artwork with their purchase!
To all appearances, John Carpenter's cult classic assaults Blu-ray for a second time with what appears to be the same high-def master used for 2008's Restored Collector's Edition.
The surprisingly good 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode displays a nice variety of bold, cleanly rendered colors. Primaries are particularly lively while the softer hues are pleasant and well saturated, and skin tones appear natural throughout. Considering its low-budget origins, the 2.35:1 presentation is decently sharp for a nearly 40-year-old movie with strong definition and often-revealing facial complexions. A few scenes are understandably of poorer resolution, but the video shows a welcomed and consistent layer of film-like grain. Contrast and brightness are rather disappointing as black levels tend to waver from scene to scene and details can be engulfed by dark shadows on several occasions. All things considered however, the movie actually looks great.
As in previous releases from Shout! Factory, 'Assault' storms Blu-ray with two listening options, and either choice turns out to be a pleasant surprise. For purists, the original mono design is given a high-rez upgrade that very well centered in the middle of the screen. Vocals take priority over the rest of the action, but the mid-range is clean with better than expected low bass.
Most impressive is the DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack which I shockingly found myself enjoying. There isn't much going on in the rears except for a couple moments of very subtle ambiance at the beginning, which is good. If they sent any further, it would likely be distracting and feel forced. Instead, the lossless mix maintains a satisfying front-heavy presentation, creating a broad and engaging soundstage. Dialogue is well-prioritized while the musical score and off-screen effects come in discretely and without a hint of distortion in the upper ranges. The low-end has an amusing palpable oomph, providing Carpenter's synth music with a great deal of weight and presence. In the end, both high-rez tracks are quite good and complement the film admirably.
The following supplements are ported over from previous releases.
A modernized version of western tropes turned into an action thriller set in the middle of Los Angeles, 'Assault on Precinct 13' comes with a very bizarre plot about a violent gang on a suicide mission. Nevertheless, John Carpenter turns it into a wildly entertaining and suspenseful flick about the most unlikely bunch of people in survival mode. Carpenter's cult classic hits Blu-ray for the second time with a great picture quality and an excellent audio presentation. This new collector's edition from Shout! Factory features the same supplement as the previous release but adds new pieces to tempt fans into a double-dip. When it comes down to it however, this package is recommended for the most devoted of fans, but if you haven't purchased a copy yet, now is the best time.