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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 10/21/98

Assault on Precinct 13
1976 (1997) - CKK Corporation (Image Entertainment)

review by Todd Doogan, special to The Digital Bits

Assault on Precinct 13 Film Rating: B+
Master filmmaker John Carpenter comes into his own with this well made cheapy. Borrowing heavily from Rio Bravo, Carpenter shows the world what he can do -- and he can do a lot.

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): D/B+/A
Although there are heavy artifacting problems, the disc is surprisingly watchable. Throw in great mono audio, and a top-notch commentary track, and you have a pretty confusing purchase decision. But for anyone who likes good commentary, this is the one track all others should be judged against.

Overall Rating: C-
Maybe it's because the film is so good, that you end up overlooking its problems. If you're a Carpenter fan, it's a must own -- if you're not, well, let's just say it's your call.

Specs and Features

91 minutes, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), single-sided, theatrical trailer, commentary by John Carpenter, film themed menu screens, scene access (25 chapters), languages: English (DD mono), subtitles: English, Close Captioned


John Carpenter is one of the real unsung heroes of film. Yeah, he's on a downward spiral lately, considering that all of the films he's made in the last few years have been duds. Memoirs Of An Invisible Man was actually pretty good (full of those little Carpenterisms that true fans of his work have grown to love), but Chevy Chase sunk the film like cement-shoes on a mob informer. After that, Carpenter lost a bit of his footing, turning in films that were either too light (Escape From L.A.), or just too damn heavy (In The Mouth Of Madness). Up until Memoirs, Carpenter has consistently made thoroughly entertaining and compelling genre films, and he's done so with relatively small budgets, and a pure love of cinema.

John Carpenter's second film, Assault On Precinct 13, was inspired by his personal deity, filmmaker Howard Hawks, who brought Rio Bravo to the screen. Rio Bravo is the typical, testosterone-filled Western, starring the likes of John Wayne, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson. The plot is simple - the three leads are holding the brother of the local "dark hat" in jail. Thus, the "dark hat" and his posse bombard the jail, trying to get the brother out. Each side has a reason for doing what they're doing -- and ultimately good triumphs over evil. That's the type of movie John Carpenter grew up on -- hard-as-nails anti-heroes, who do what's right, not because they have to, but because they're not expected to. Assault on Precinct 13 is essentially Rio Bravo in the hood, but to leave it at that would be underselling a masterpiece.

On a dark night, police ambush a gang of street thugs. All the rival gang leaders find this a pretty bad move on behalf of the police, and take a literal blood pact to launch an L.A. killing spree. Black, white, Hispanic -- each and every gang member (despite their color, race or sexual orientation) joins forces to destroy civilization. It's kind of beautiful, how they're able to set aside their differences to oppose "The Man". Anyway, during one of their drive-bys, the gang goes after an Ice Cream Man. In an truly amazing shot (gun wise and camera wise - through an ice cream cone), the gang kills a little girl getting ice cream, while her father is on a nearby pay phone. The father picks up his bleeding daughter and drives after the gang to get his revenge. Cars can't run forever, so eventually there is a showdown in a parking lot, where the father is able to unload a hail of bullets into one of the gang members. In a moment of confusion, he makes it to a virtually abandoned police precinct. Of course, the district is 13, and the precinct is 9, but I guess Assault on Precinct 9 didn't have quite the same ring.

Why the precinct is virtually abandoned, is a story in itself. It's the day before the precinct is to be retired, and a lone police officer is answering phones until the station is closed. Naturally, a bus filled with prison convicts breaks down nearby, and the cons must be locked up in the precinct until the bus can be repaired. It's no big deal... except that one of the cons is Napoleon, a sort of Snake Plissken precursor played by Darwin Joston (but without the charisma Kurt Russell has). When the father (and his dead little girl) come crashing in, chased by the aforementioned relentless gang of thugs, all hell breaks loose. It's all pretty silly, but it works somehow, and without it... hell, there wouldn't be much of a movie, would there?

Assault on Precinct 13 simply works. Despite some stiff acting, and a few (OK, a lot) of fake dying scenes, it holds up well. And when you consider its $100,000 budget, you can't really complain. It has all the things we've come to love about Carpenter -- full use of the wide Panavision frame, great camera work, and manly men doing manly things. The film is a great way to jump into the John Carpenter filmography -- it's sort of a Carpenter-land travel guide.

The DVD is a different story. Although the Carpenter commentary track is worth the price alone, the transfer is dark and hazy. It's watchable, but there are loads of artifacts, mostly apparent during dark scenes. At least the colors are pretty good overall. The soundtrack is in well-mastered mono, that showcases Carpenter's score and sound of heavy gunfire.

Also included is the original theatrical trailer, which looks like it was put into a blender. It's so scratched to high-heaven, that you really wonder why it was included. Oh well, at least they tried. You have to give 'em points for that. On the plus side, listening to the commentary track is like being in a film theory class, with Carpenter sitting next to you, explaining all the scenes. This really is what a commentary track should be. Those used to his buddy-style tracks with Russell are in for a shock - he's straight forward, honest and very informative, splashing out nuggets of info as if he shot the footage yesterday.

Bottom line

Assault on Precinct 13 is as good a film as any, to start your journey down Carpenter Alley with. On DVD, it's heavily artifacted, but not so bad as to be unwatchable. The sound is great (for mono), and the commentary track is pretty good.. It's a so-so DVD - not bad, but not great. But hey, it's Carpenter, so you won't hear me complain too much.

Todd Doogan
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