Shout! Factory // 1976 // 91 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // November 6th, 2013
A cop with a war on his hands. His enemy: an army of street killers. His only ally: a convicted murderer.
Scream Factory continues to roll out its slate of John Carpenter movies with their release of the director's original 1976 cult classic, one of the best siege movies ever made.
When several members of the L.A. gang Street Thunder are shot and killed by the police, the gang swears an oath of murderous revenge on the L.A.P.D. It just happens to be on the same day Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker, Sheba, Baby) takes over a decommissioned police precinct (13!) before it closes forever -- AND a bus transporting criminals and murderers (including the excellently-named Napoleon Wilson, played by Darwin Joston of Eraserhead) has to stop at the precinct seeking medical attention. And it's the same night that Street Thunder makes their siege on the police station! Can Bishop and Wilson work together to survive the Assault on Precinct 13?
John Carpenter makes badass movies.
That's a very specific categorization, and one that's very difficult to quantify. But we fans of genre cinema know badass movies when we see them. Mad Max? That's a badass movie. The Wild Bunch? Badass movie. The Warriors? Badass. Carpenter is a filmmaker with more badass movies than most, from Escape from New York to The Thing to They Live. They're movies where you watch them and as soon as they end, you can only say "That was badass."
The original 1976 Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter's first feature after his debut movie Dark Star, is a total badass movie. Part Rio Bravo, part Night of the Living Dead, the movie pays worthy tribute to Carpenter's hero Howard Hawks by showing tough men who are good at their jobs -- in this case, fighting off an armed gang and surviving through the night. The simplicity of the movie is one of its strongest suits: it pairs the white hat-wearing (in Western terms) hero and pairs him with a badass bad guy, forcing them to work together in order to fight off some truly evil men -- evil because they have no code.
There is so much of what Carpenter would continue to do throughout his career on display in Assault on Precinct 13, and it's great to watch him first begin to work out some of his stylistic signatures and themes. What's amazing is just how much it feels like a total John Carpenter movie, meaning he knew exactly what he wanted to do right out of the gate. It's a movie that makes use of confined space, it has a brilliant score composed by Carpenter, concerns itself with the way that men work together (there's Hawks again) and knows how to wring a lot of tension out of every scene. It feels genuinely dangerous; you never know which characters are safe (just look at what happens to that girl eating ice cream), which makes the movie both more compelling and unnerving. In some ways, it's one of the purest expressions of Carpenter he ever made. Yes, it's a little more crude and rough around the edges, but that's what gives the movie its charm.
It goes without saying at this point that Scream Factory's release of Assault on Precinct 13 is the definitive release of the title (which is true of every movie they've put out). The movie was previously released on Blu-ray in 2008 (without any special features), but I can't compare the two transfers because I don't own the older edition. Suffice it to say that Shout! Factory's transfer is excellent -- detail is good and crushing is mostly avoided despite the incredibly dark photography. The transfer occasionally betrays the film's age and low-budget roots, but I think it's safe to say it has never looked better. Two audio options are presented: a remastered lossless 5.1 surround mix or a mono mix for the faithful.
Several of the bonus features from previous releases have been carried over to this edition, including John Carpenter's commentary and footage from the 2002 interview with the director and star Austin Stoker, as well as some vintage radio spots and the movie's original theatrical trailer. New to the Scream Factory edition are interviews with Stoker, Nancy Loomis and Tommy Lee Wallace, who worked as an art director on the film before becoming a successful genre director in his own right.
For a certain type of film fan, John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 is a kind of classic. It's one of the more underrated titles in the director's incredible filmography, and Scream Factory continues to do great work as they make their way through his catalogue. Any self-respecting fan of badass movies needs to pick this one up.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Radio Spots
* DVD Copy