John Carpenter, and I think of a few different movies. My favorite has always been The Thing, but he also directed Halloween, Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China among others. He had to start somewhere though, including one of his more notable and controversial movies, 1976's Assault on Precinct 13.
Having just received a promotion within the California Highway Patrol, Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) receives his orders for his upcoming shift. He's supposed to head over to a precinct that's in its final hours, the station closing the next morning. What's the point? Eh, he goes along with it. At the same time, a Death Row prisoner, Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), is being transported to a new facility, but another prisoner on the bus is having some medical issues, forcing the bus to stop at the soon-to-be closed precinct. Lastly, a mysterious, quiet, almost in-shock man named Lawson (Martin West) stumbles into the police station. He's being chased by members of a street gang who are close behind and start to shoot up the station. Now, Bishop, Wilson, Lawson and the skeleton crew working during the precinct's last shift are in a fight for their lives. Unable to communicate with the outside world and isolated from the city, their hopes for survival seem slim at best.
John Carpenter is a talented director who also writes screenplays and has done his own soundtracks, as he does here with a synth-sounding, electronica score. But you know what else he is? Above all else, he's a big fan of movies and films in general. I've seen him pop up in countless DVD special features and tribute interviews. He knows where films have come from and what audiences like while still making his own films....well, his own. I think this qualifies in a big way, touches of the western genre (Rio Bravo's prison under siege scenario, Once Upon a Time in the West providing several word-for-word lines) with an influx of all the violent craziness the 1970s had to offer. It was remade in 2005 (an entertaining, more star-driven action flick), but this 1976 original has a lot going for it. Does that make it a good movie though?
I think the more appropriate description is that 'Assault' is more an interesting movie than a good one. Made on the cheap with a budget of about $100,000, it has that low budget charm. It has the look of a renegade filmmaker trying something different. The violence is surprising and at times, shocking, including one infamous scene with a girl (Kim Richards) at an ice cream truck. It isn't interested in genre conventions either. Anyone and everyone is bait for the bad guys so don't blink. Just because you think you're safe, that means nothing. The cast has some recognizable faces but definitely no stars. It's all these little things that add up, but I came away kinda 'blah' to the whole thing. I liked it, didn't love it.
So who to look out for? As mentioned, not a ton of star power. Some recognizable faces but no stars. Stoker is the hero, the police officer seemingly on his own to survive and lead. The most interesting character was Joston's Wilson, a Death Row inmate who steps up to the plate with his life on the line. Not much development there, but it's an interesting persona. They perform a Hell of an Odd Couple. There's also Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), a pretty, tough police secretary, Wells (Tony Burton, of Rocky fame), as a fellow prisoner being transported, Starker (Charles Cyphers), the higher-ranking police officer in charge of the transport, Julie (Nancy Kyes), another secretary, Chaney (Henry Brandon), the crotchety, cantankerous officer, and the precinct captain (James Jeter). Some cool characters, but much of the focus is on Stoker, Joston, Zimmer and Burton.
I guess I was just looking for something else, something more. The street gang is never really explained, just that they've come into possession of a huge shipment of heavy and automatic weapons. They've taken an oath among the group, ready to die....because they're a really loyal street gang? I guess? They decide their efforts are best used shooting up an isolated precinct because someone inside has seriously wronged them. Wave after wave of attacks provide some cool, chaotic action scenes, but they get tedious quickly. Carpenter shoots these scenes in interesting fashion, seemingly unending gangsters with a death wish revealing themselves in the darkness, behind cars, moving in and around parked cars. There's some cool little moments that wouldn't be out of place in a horror movie.
But as a whole? It's okay. Nothing more, nothing less. I came away disappointed. It isn't a bad movie, but I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I hoped I would. A disappointing end result.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976): **/****