***½/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B+
starring Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Nancy Loomis
written and directed by John Carpenter
by Bryant Frazer Written and directed by USC film-school grad John Carpenter, Assault on Precinct 13 is the work of a man with something to prove. Carpenter had finished one film, the shot-on-16mm SF parody Dark Star, co-written with Dan O'Bannon, but he found that nobody in Hollywood took it (or him) seriously. After winning a for-hire writing gig for Columbia Pictures (Carpenter wrote the screenplay that became The Eyes of Laura Mars), he got his hands on a hundred thousand dollars and wrangled some of his friends from USC to help him make the first "real" John Carpenter film. The project, which borrowed its story from Rio Bravo and its mood from Night of the Living Dead, was a siege movie set in an abandoned police station in the fictional Anderson, CA, identified on screen as "a Los Angeles ghetto."
Historically, Assault on Precinct 13 is interesting not just as Carpenter's solo debut, but also because of the way it mingled genres and prefigured the assimilation of exploitation tropes into the mainstream. Carpenter has never been a pretentious filmmaker, but rather a super-smart one with a practical instinct for identifying the elements of style that make a story work on screen. Howard Hawks's he-men taught him the value of witty banter and gave him an eye for team dynamics--especially the way a man's reaction to a tough situation reveals his character. And George Romero's zombies taught Carpenter the value of truly inscrutable antagonists who emerge from the shadows in great numbers, driven by an irrational but implacable thirst for blood. Shot in elegant widescreen and propelled by the kind of simple yet driving synthesizer score that would become perhaps the most recognizable hallmark of his films, Assault on Precinct 13 is John Carpenter's origin story--an unfussy, low-budget triumph that laid the groundwork for his career.
Four narrative threads run parallel through the first section of the film. After an expedient prologue in which police snipers gun down a half-dozen members of a gang called Street Thunder, a multicultural quartet of gang leaders--white, black, Latino, and Asian--take a blood oath of vengeance that's referred to (inexplicably, in my estimation, but what do I know?) as a "cholo." Then we pick up the story of Lieutenant Bishop (Austin Stoker), a lone lawman, new to the job, who's assigned to work the final shift with a skeleton crew at a police station about to be shuttered. (The station is identified in dialogue as "Precinct 9, Division 13" while the sign out front indicates "Division 14," but who's counting?) Next up is Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), a charismatic murderer being transferred to death row who's detoured to Lieutenant Bishop's station when another inmate gets sick on the bus. Finally, there's a single dad, Lawson (Martin West), driving around the 'hood with his fresh-faced daughter, Kathy (Escape to Witch Mountain moppet Kim Richards), who flees to Lt. Wilson's station seeking safety after inciting the gang by killing one of its members. Thus all stories converge, eventually, on that isolated building, its power and phone lines cut as a multitude of enraged street warriors first shoot up the joint, then come flooding through the windows and doors in a murderous, inhuman rage.
John Carpenter was a child of Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Assault on Precinct 13 unquestionably taps into middle-American anxiety about inner-city gang violence, especially the notion of testosterone-addled gangbangers striking out at random against wholesome white people who find themselves in the wrong neighbourhood at the wrong time. That's the premise behind the infamous ice-cream-truck scene, where the four cholo-sworn thugs we met in the prologue cruise around South Central L.A. looking to stir up trouble before settling for the unprovoked murder of a guy selling ice-cream bars to neighbourhood children--among them poor Kathy, who realizes too late that she got plain vanilla instead of vanilla swirl. Carpenter structures this sequence carefully and deliberately, building suspense in a manner that suggests Hitchcock but still capitalizing on the expectation that his child-in-peril scenario will climax, as nearly every movie's child-in-peril scenario does, with the girl's narrow escape from danger. Instead, Carpenter puts a bullet in her chest. As a little spritz of blood blossoms across the front of Kathy's dress and she drops out of frame, the shot functions as both shock effect and punchline to a casually sick joke about Hollywood conventions. However, the violent moment is absolutely justified in the context of the film's increasingly unhinged narrative. It's the first toppling domino.
Though Lawson gets his revenge, he draws the attention of the rest of the gang, who pursue him to the station. He spends the rest of the movie inside and silent, wrapped in a blanket as Bishop and company realize that what used to be safe territory is now up for grabs. The keyword when it comes to Carpenter's style here is economy. Characters don't get backstories, and many are unceremoniously dispatched. Camerawork is minimal out of necessity, with Carpenter's use of careful 'scope compositions and the occasional dolly move helping compensate for bland shot-reverse-shot sequences and static master shots. Evocative lighting by cinematographer Douglas Knapp makes the most of few sets, including the basement jail, which provides built-in chiaroscuro effects imposed by light passing through the criss-crossing web of prison bars. Editing is dictated in large part by the limitations of budget imposed on the shoot, with shots playing out at full length owing to either lack of coverage or just a desire to extend the film's running time as much as possible--but this creates a mood. The film's set-up is an extremely long smoulder, as all of the narrative pieces are shifted into place, followed by an explosion of fast cutting as the picture erupts in frantic, kinetic action and our protagonists make a series of last-ditch bids to find a safe place to hide, to get someone outside the station to call for help, or to somehow repel the approaching masses. The film's final 35 minutes move especially quickly.
The actors certainly seem to be clued in to the movie's ancestry in the American western. In his first scene, when Bishop exits his house and walks to his unmarked cruiser, Stoker takes his sweet time, looking up and down the block not like an LAPD cop but like a sheriff surveying his one-horse town. Joston plays Wilson with the stoic demeanour of the outlaw with a self-imposed code of honour, fighting to protect the same institution that means to put him to death. Carpenter does make room in the stripped-down narrative for a couple of dames in tight sweaters, Leigh and Julie (Laurie Zimmer and Nancy Loomis), who keep the film from being a complete sausage fest. Both women are smart and attractive but Carpenter puts them in opposing roles--the honourable woman and the dishonourable one. Zimmer's sultry, courageous Leigh contrasts with Loomis's callow, craven Julie, who argues for throwing Lawson to the wolves outside the station door at the first opportunity. Carpenter's use of a female character as the mouthpiece for this kind of betrayal struck me as a bit sexist, like the convenient employment of Grace Kelly to shoot a man in the back (!) at the end of High Noon. (The treatment of Julie in this film offers some evidence to back up the oft-floated argument that the murders in Halloween were at least in part a judgment on the sexual promiscuity of the female characters, though Carpenter has always denied it.) Still, at least Julie is doing something that matters, and that's more use than a lot of contemporary action movies manage to make of their female characters.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
My first viewing of Assault on Precinct 13 was courtesy the 1994 LaserDisc, whose transfer videophile magazine WIDESCREEN REVIEW described as "poor with significant grain and artifacts throughout." Well, technology has come a long way, and Assault on Precinct 13 is a completely different movie on Blu-ray Disc, where the fidelity draws attention to the details--the fog filter on the lens that puts an old-Hollywood glow around a lit match, or the consistency of ‘scope images (letterboxed to 2.35:1) that use light, shadow, negative space, and frames within the frame to show the characters cornered inside their own little Alamo. The presentation is nice, with reasonably broad dynamic range and contrast levels that seem to accurately reflect a 35mm source of this vintage. I've seen other reviewers complain of "crushed" blacks, and that may be the case, but mostly it looks like detail vanishing in the underlit toe of the filmed image to me. Dust and damage have been fairly comprehensively scrubbed away, and there may be some tiny, briefly visible artifacts from that repair process. The only substantial aberration comes with one short sequence set in the basement cell block, when Leigh is sent down to free the prisoners as the siege begins and the image abruptly exhibits a coarser grain structure, less fine detail, and elevated black levels. My guess is the elements for that bit of the movie were of a lower quality, perhaps a release print, and the brightness was boosted to unnatural levels in order to gain shadow detail from the dimmer material. An A/B frame comparison with the Image Entertainment Blu-ray from 2008 reveals that Scream Factory's disc uses precisely the same HD transfer, with only minute variations in the image likely owing to its re-encoding at a higher bitrate for this dual-layered platter.
What does differ from the Image BD is the soundtrack--not the DTS-HD MA 5.1 remix, which sounds substantially the same in its lossless glory, but rather the 2.0 mono alternative, included in Dolby Digital on the earlier release and in DTS-HD MA on this version. That's significant, since this is one of those titles where the mono track may be preferable to the multichannel option. In this case, the 5.1 audio has an impressive, room-filling capacity with a beefed-up low end that adds body to Carpenter's thumping soundtrack. Yet the remix tracks also sound as if they were noise-reduced or had their high frequencies filtered out, resulting in a notably boomier aural experience compared to the brighter mono alternative. Levels were fiddled with, too, and the 5.1 mix contains clear foley sounds that are sometimes buried so far down in the mono mix that they're actually inaudible. In some cases, those effects weren't there in the first place. Only purists will care much, but they'll be glad to have a lossless version of the mono track. (Say it in unison: Thank you, Scream Factory.) Unfortunately, while Carpenter's isolated score likewise returns, it's in lossy Dolby Digital, just as it was on the previous disc.
As far as I can tell, Carpenter's yak-track dates all the way back to that original LaserDisc, as well as previous DVD and Blu releases, which is just as well. Carpenter is his usual, self-deprecating commentator, observing the myriad shooting choices that were forced due to budgetary restraints, gently mocking lines of dialogue he regards as the melodramatic output of a much younger man, and bemoaning his own inexperience in composing for the widescreen frame. He recalls the marathon 24-hour shooting day that was required to get all of the necessary footage from the location with the jail cells. He notes the moments when movie magic was used to transform multiple locations from around the greater L.A. area into the immediate surroundings of the old Venice police station where the film was shot, which wasn't nearly isolated enough for the story's needs. As you'd expect, he also has generally nice things to say about the actors--including Laurie Zimmer, who was apparently mortified by her screen debut--and points out the "college kids" who played ganger members in lieu of stunt people. Also carried over from previous editions is a 23-minute appearance by Carpenter and Stoker from a January 2002 American Cinematheque screening of Assault on Precinct 13 (upconverted to HD) that goes over a lot of the same ground that Carpenter covers on the alternate soundtrack.
New to this BD is a feature-length commentary by Carpenter's childhood friend Tommy Lee Wallace, interviewed for Scream Factory by Michael Felsher. Wallace says he agreed to act as sound-effects editor on the film without having any idea of what that entailed. He additionally served as art director and recalls here that, due to his inexperience, he allowed the scope of his work to expand far beyond the initial job description. (As Carpenter acknowledges, Wallace shared picture-cutting duty for some of the distinctive action sequences.) My favourite wonky bit came when he described editing the ice-cream-truck driver's line "It's eight o'clock, sweetheart. I'm closed" after Carpenter expressed concern that the light in the shot did not look much like eight in the evening. As the actor wasn't available for ADR, Wallace edited the shot so the line became, "It's late, sweetheart. I'm closed."
Stoker gets his chance to go on record about his character and the choices he made as an actor in this edition's newly-commissioned eight-minute featurette "Bishop Under Siege with Austin Stoker" (HD), and the former Mrs. Tommy Lee Wallace gets a full 13 minutes to talk about Carpenter's influences and intentions as well as her character specifically in "The Sassy One with Nancy Loomis" (HD). The latter segment, especially, suffers from a badly-pulled chroma-key, as strands of the actress's hair vanish, distractingly, against the virtual background. (Note to producers: not every interview needs to be shot in front of a freakin' greenscreen.) Rounding things out are an enjoyable two-minute, upconverted theatrical trailer, albeit one that suffers from heavy print damage and is cropped to 1.85:1, two radio spots clocking in at one minute total, and a HiDef photo gallery featuring a ton of images, many of them of dubious quality. This disc is a worthwhile upgrade from the previous Image release, if not an essential one.