Directed By: John Carpenter
Starring: Austin Stoker, Darwin Josten, Laurie Zimmer, Martin West
Tag line: "L.A.'s Deadliest Street Gang Just Declared War on the Cops"
Trivia: Co-star Darwin Josten was director Carpenter's next-door neighbor at the time this film was shot
Some have called it an homage to Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, while others have cited the obvious influences of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Whatever its initial inspirations may have been, however, one thing is now certain: John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 stands on its own; a masterwork of action with a power to shock and entertain that's just as strong today as when it was first released.
Division 13 of Los Angeles’ 9th precinct is being phased out of existence. Most of the cops have moved on to other precincts, and only a token few, under the command of new Chief Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker), remain behind to hold down the fort. But division 13 isn’t about to go quietly into the night. For starters, the nearly abandoned precinct finds itself the unwitting host to ruthless murderer Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), whose trip to Death Row has been temporarily diverted to their holding cell. Then, shortly after this turn of events, a man stumbles through the precinct doors, looking for refuge. The man is Lawson (Martin Wells), whose daughter Kathy (Kim Richards) was just killed in a gang shooting. In a fit of rage, Lawson himself killed one of the gang members (Frank Doubleday), and, as a result, was chased by the rest of them into the poorly-defended precinct. Having also vowed revenge against the police for an earlier shooting, the heavily armed gang, which goes by the name of Street Thunder, assembles just outside division 13 in the hopes of settling all their scores in one night. Now, with no electricity, no phones, and very few weapons at their disposal, Ethan Bishop must join forces with some of the most hardened criminals ever to occupy division 13 if he’s to have any chance at all of surviving the night.
The performances in Assault on Precinct 13 range from good to merely competent, but no matter: the real star of the movie is John Carpenter, whose talents are given a full workout. Functioning as writer, director, editor (a task he performed under the pseudonym John T. Chance) and even composer, Carpenter flexes each and every one of his creative muscles, all to wonderful effect. The dialogue, especially that of killer Napoleon Wilson, is sharp and to the point, with Carpenter showing an early penchant for giving the bad-asses all the great lines (when asked why he killed, Wilson answers, “The first time I ever saw a preacher, he said ‘Son, there’s something strange about you. You got something to do with death’. Being real young, I believed him”). When not impressing us with his dialogue, Carpenter lets his brooding score do the talking, which always sets the perfect tone (light and observant when Ethan Bishop first walks into precinct 13; sharp and powerful when the gang members set out to exact their revenge).
Then, of course, there’s the action, and before we’re introduced to a single character, we witness a shoot-out in which some of the members of Street Thunder are ambushed by the police. This is immediately followed by the disturbing, brutal murder of young Kathy, whose only crime was she wanted to buy ice cream in a bad part of town. With these two exciting scenes as a starting point, the stage is set for what will prove to be an electrifying motion picture.
Assault on Precinct 13 was made on a nearly invisible budget (it was produced by J. Stein Kaplan and Joseph Kaufman, two friends of Carpenter’s who financed the film with money borrowed from their fathers), yet Carpenter took full advantage of everything at his disposal, assembling a film as skillfully constructed as it is thrilling to behold.