Image Entertainment // 1976 // 91 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // March 11th, 2003
L.A.'s deadliest street gang just declared war on the cops!
Many forget that while Halloween is mostly likely John Carpenter's most famous work, it was certainly not his first foray into feature films. In 1976 Carpenter wrote, directed, and scored Assault on Precinct 13, a tense thriller that wasn't a hit in theaters, but slowly garnered cult status among movie fans. Originally released on a bare bones edition in the early years of DVD, Assault on Precinct 13 is back in action in a new "special edition" care of Image Entertainment.
In the heart of Los Angeles, police precinct 13 is closing its doors for good. Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker, Battle for the Planet of the Apes) has been assigned to 13, which has been emptied out and disconnected, save for a couple of secretaries (Nancy Keyes, Laurie Zimmer) and a few remaining officers. When a busload of criminals -- including the infamous "Napoleon" Wilson (Darwin Joston, The Fog) -- and officers arrive at the precinct to take care of a sick prisoner, things really start to pick up for the bored inhabitants. However, life takes a turn for the worst when a man who just witnessed his daughter gunned down by a vicious street gang enters the building, confused and unable to talk. Suddenly and without warning the precinct becomes a battleground as the gang members begin an all-out war with the remaining cops, civilians, and criminals!
Assault on Precinct 13 is a rough, raw action flick that is one of Carpenter's most underappreciated efforts. Though we all may be in agreement that Carpenter's current work borders on mediocre (Vampires or Village of the Damned, anyone?), his expansive résumé is both impressive and entertaining. Carpenter is mostly known as a horror guru among movie fans, but is also adept in making nail-biting action movies (Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live).
The plot for Assault on Precinct 13 is exceptionally straightforward: good guys and bad guys must protect themselves from really bad guys attacking their stronghold. The film often feels like a nod to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead -- much like the mindless zombies in Romero's film, the gang members in Assault on Precinct 13 are relentless killing machines that abound in numbers. Carpenter is able to wring maximum tension out of a minimal budget -- in the supplemental interview included on this disc, Carpenter discusses how the film shot for mere dollars. The effect, however, is startling -- even though the money wasn't abundant, the thrills and action are. There's a great scene where the gang members lay to waste the police station with seemingly hundreds of bullets. Just when you think it's over, the gunfire starts up again. The editing, pace, and relentless nature of this scene raises Assault on Precinct 13 heads and shoulders above most action movies of its caliber.
The performances in Assault on Precinct 13 are nothing spectacular, though the film never needs them to be -- Austin Stoker is solemnly defined as the protagonist, and the late Darwin Joston is cynically funny as Wilson, a dangerous criminal who joins forces with the cops to save his own butt. Though a few of the actresses are less than stellar (Nancy Keyes is way too over-the-top), generally the actors play the material exactly as needed. Bonus points for spotting Carpenter regular Charles Cyphers, who can also be spotted in Halloween parts I and II, Escape From New York, and The Fog.
There isn't much to Assault on Precinct 13, and for once that's a good thing. It's a very straightforward action movie that clips along at a great pace. It may not be perfect -- some of the fashions are terribly out of date, and a few of the effects are just short of cheesy -- but what the movie lacks in polish it makes up for in gusto. One of Carpenter's best. Recommended.
Assault on Precinct 13 is presented in a transfer featuring the original widescreen aspect ratio (2.35:1) and enhanced for 16x9 TV sets. Image has done a very fine job of bringing this film to DVD in a new edition that improves upon the old non-anamorphic print. Although there are some flaws to be found in the image (including a fair amount of grain and dirt, some wear and tear in the picture, and a few washed out colors), overall this is the best looking print yet of this film on DVD.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono in English. Now here's a movie that really would have benefited from a new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. There are multiple scenes involving bullets and explosions that would have worked well with a surround sound enhancement. Unfortunately, fans will have to live with this lackluster audio mix featuring front heavy dialogue, music, and effects. Only a slight amount of hiss shows up in the mix -- otherwise, this audio track is clear of most distortion. No alternate soundtracks or subtitles are included on this disc.
Fans of Assault on Precinct 13 will be thrilled to hear that Image has included some well produced extra features on this second DVD edition of the film. Here's a rouge's gallery of what's on this disc:
Commentary Track by Writer/Composer/Director John Carpenter: Carpenter, as usual, is a great listen when it comes to commentary tracks. This particular feature is filled with a wealth of information on the production, the origins of the film (it's inspired after Carpenter's favorite Howard Hawks' western, Rio Bravo), the music (the pulsating score is one of Carpenter's best works), and other aspects of the shoot and inception. For fans of John Carpenter or the movie, this is an invaluable listen.
Isolated Music Score: Carpenter's creepy, synth-heavy music score is available on a second audio track that is void of any dialogue or sound effects. While Carpenter is known as a great director, he's also very good at creating atmospheric music scores for his films.
Interview with John Carpenter and Actor Austin Stoker: This interview originally took place at the Egyptian in Hollywood, CA, on January 25th, 2002. Much of what Carpenter talks about here (answering questions by a mediator) is included on the commentary track, though Stoker's comments are often enlightening and informative. Unfortunately, the camera work on this feature is rather shaky and amateurish.
Production Gallery: This is a really neat little still gallery/history of the film. Set to Carpenter's eerie music score, this feature includes still photos, hand drawn storyboards, and snippets of text from the original screenplay, along with some written history about the film.
Radio Spots and Theatrical Trailer: Two entertaining radio spots and an anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailer are included on this disc.
A rare action movie that has stood the test of time. Assault on Precinct 13 is just as good -- and maybe even better -- than many of the big budge action extravaganza's being released by Hollywood today. Well worth checking out, especially in this new extra feature laden package.
Kudos to Image for bringing this cult classic back to DVD! Case dismissed!
Review content copyright © 2003 Patrick Naugle; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary Track by Writer/Director/Composer John Carpenter
* Interview with John Carpenter and Austin Stoker
* Theatrical Trailer
* Production Gallery
* Isolated Music Score
* Two Radio Spots