action films, Assault on Precinct 13, Austin Stoker, auteur theory, B-movies, child killing, cinema, classic movies, claustrophic, Darwin Joston, Douglas Knapp, favorite films, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, gang members, Halloween, iconic film scores, John Carpenter, Lalo Schifrin, low-budget films, Movies, Napoleon Wilson, police station, score, siege, synth scores, working together
Anyone who knows me well knows that pinning me down on my favorite anything can be an exercise in frustration: my specific lists of favorite films, music, TV shows, food, etc…tend to change not so much on a regular basis but on a moment-to-moment basis. Stick around long enough and, chances are, you’ll hear me call at least two separate things “the greatest ______ ever,” if not five separate things. This isn’t to say that I’m necessarily fickle with my entertainment loves: rather, I try to constantly expose myself to new films, music, etc, which often has the effect of displacing some of my previous loves.
That being said, however, there are still a few films that never quite leave the “Best of…” list, even if their ultimate position in said list tends to be constantly changing. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is one of those films, as is The Godfather and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Goodfellas and Taxi Driver are both on there, of course, because I can’t have a favorites list without some Scorcese. It goes without saying that John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween is on the list but there’s another Carpenter film that, for me, is even more of a no-brainer for inclusion. This is a film so perfect that I ceased looking for flaws at least a decade ago and have simply accepted its place in the ultimate list of my life: somewhere right around the top, maybe bumping shoulders with Faith No More, Travis Bickle and Leatherface. It’s a movie that, if I’m being honest with myself, I actually like more than Halloween. The film? Assault on Precinct 13. Why do I love it so much? Let me count the ways.
Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 is one of those cases where the individual parts of a movie, while mighty on their own, come together to form something akin to the Voltron of exploitation cinema. We start with Carpenter’s iconic synth score, including that mammoth theme song. For me, this provokes a near Pavlovian response, similar to the one I get from Morricone’s essential score for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: every time I hear that series of terse, clipped notes, followed by that simmering synth stab, I get a little adrenaline rush, a little tickle in the back of my reptile brain. This is the “ass-kicking” cortex getting stimulated and the Assault on Precinct 13 theme is its cellphone ringer. Pair this theme with the stark red letters on black screen opening credits and the film seems classic before it even properly begins.
Carpenter’s score is a whole lot more than just that jagged, robotic call-to-arms, however. There’s a moody piece in the score that plays during Bishop’s arrival at Precinct 13 (as well as the aftermath of the “shoot-in”) that ranks as one of my favorite pieces of film music ever, including such luminous peers as the sweeping Godfather score and Morricone’s aforementioned Good, Bad, Ugly score. It’s a melancholy, nearly bluesy bit that reminds me of Lalo Schifrin’s score for Dirty Harry (another of my all-time favorite film/score combos) and is so perfectly evocative that it almost tells a story on its own. It’s a pensive piece that neatly serves as a theme for Bishop’s thoughtful, quiet leadership style.
The score, by turns ominous and melancholy, perfectly underscores the film’s themes and walks hand-in-hand with the stark, gritty visuals. Shot by Carpenter’s Dark Star cinematographer Douglas Knapp (on what would end up being his last feature film work, to date), Assault on Precinct 13 has a washed-out, sun-bleached look that recalls Dirty Harry, yet manages to incorporate the deep-focus elements that would become so familiar when Halloween rampaged across movie screens two years later. As in Halloween, there’s a lot in Assault on Precinct 13 that occurs on the edges of the frame: figures skulking about, the sudden appearance (or disappearance) of a character. The tight framing handily evokes a constant, sustained feeling of claustrophobia throughout the film, while the washed-out color palette gives everything a subtly doomed feel.
As with everything else in the film, Assault on Precinct 13th’s plot is lean, mean and fat-free: on the eve that a small, isolated police station in one of the worst parts of the city is about to be shuttered, a tiny skeleton crew of officers and prisoners must make a desperate stand against a seemingly endless army of blood-thirsty, armed-to-the-teeth gang members. With no hope of rescue or reinforcements until the wee hours of the morning, Lt. Bishop (Austin Stoker), Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and notorious convict Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) must use their wits, resolve and whatever weapons they can scrounge together to keep from becoming more casualties of the mean streets.
And that’s it, folks: no meandering B and C stories…no unnecessary romantic subplots…no drifting off into tangents that dilute the overall impact…just 90 minutes of pure survival. This isn’t to say that there isn’t any character development or that everyone is flat: far from it. Rather, Carpenter has written an excellent, tight script that allows characters to develop organically, rather than exist merely as convenient genre stereotypes. Bishop and Wilson, on their own, are two of the most fascinating genre creations to ever grace the silver screen: neither one comes across as clichéd and I’ve always found myself wondering what happened to the characters after the film ended. Hell, I often find myself wondering what happened to the characters before the movie started and I’m a guy that pretty much abhors prequels. In this case, however, I’ve always been dying to know what Napoleon did that was so terrible and what happened to Lt. Bishop as a young man. It’s a testament to Carpenter’s writing that he’s left me wanting more, just like a good book.
All of these elements add up to a lot but they wouldn’t add up to a righteously kick-ass action film without some righteously kick-ass action sequences, now would they? Fear not, friends and neighbors: Assault on Precinct 13th has this covered. From the Western-esque scene where about one million gang members shoot approximately 4 billion bullets into the station house to the edge-of-the-seat finale where Bishop and Wilson hold off a snarling, feral mob in a narrow corridor from behind the world’s tiniest barricade, Assault on Precinct 13 very rarely comes up for air. In fact, the film is so tense that the pressure kicks on in the first frames (thanks to that epic theme) and is ratcheted up before we even get to the police station: by that point, the film is ready to explode…and does.
The acting, like everything else in Assault on Precinct 13, is impeccable. Although the cast is filled with unfamiliar faces and lacks the recognizable appeal of a Donald Pleasence, they work together quite beautifully. In particular, special recognition must be given to the two leads: Austin Stoker and Darwin Joston.
Stoker brings a real sense of quiet dignity and resolve to Lt. Bishop, qualities that almost bring him more in line with traditional Western heroes than with law enforcement ones. Joston, on the other hand, plays Napoleon Wilson with just the right amount of Southern charm, self-deprecation and quiet menace. Stoker and Joston have real chemistry together and I’ve always wished that the two could have gone on to do other “buddy”-type films. Missed opportunities notwithstanding, the friendship between the black police officer and the white, Southern convict brings some emotional heft to the story and makes the ending genuinely powerful: as Bishop and Wilson stand in the debris, a “rescuing” officer attempts to grab the prisoner, only to be violently shoved away by Lt. Bishop. After staring down the over-eager officer, Bishop walks Wilson out with the dignity and respect that he’s earned over the course of the siege. It’s a big, powerful moment and it never fails to get me in the gut every time: follow that with a quick cut back to the red text/black background with the theme playing and I stand and salute every single damn time.
At the end of the day, I have a lot of concrete reasons for loving Assault on Precinct 13: the acting is fantastic, the cinematography is moody and claustrophobic, the script is smart, the dialogue cracks, the relationship between Bishop and Wilson feels completely genuine and the score is absolutely superb. For me, these all seem like ingredients in a sure-fire formula for a perfect film. More than anything, however, there’s a feeling I get from watching this film that’s hard to quite explain. I’ll never stop watching Halloween or The Thing but there’s just something about Assault on Precinct 13 that really gets to me on a primal level. Perhaps it’s because we live in such a hard world and it seems like the streets of the Anderson Precinct could become a reality at any time. Perhaps it’s because the film so gloriously upholds that most human and beautiful of beliefs: as long as you can breathe, you can keep fighting.