You have probably heard the name John Carpenter, but if not, he’s a must for any fan of pulp entertainment.
His career spans many genres but he’s best known for his horror films like “Halloween,” “The Thing” and “In the Mouth of Madness.” While he’s now revered as one of the best directors ever, his movies weren’t always as well received as they are now, save for a few.
Two years before signing on to direct the revolutionary horror film “Halloween,” Carpenter made a low budget action thriller that, while somewhat dismissed during its 1976 release, is now recognized as one of his best movies.
Set in the fictional Los Angeles ghetto of Anderson, six top-ranking thugs of the gang “Street Thunder” are ambushed and killed by the police. The following morning, the rest of the gang members vow vengeance against the LAPD in a blood oath to the death. Their first target: a soon-to-be closed police station with only a handful of occupants inside. These occupants, including a highway patrol officer and a notorious murderer, rally together and fight off the gang with whatever they can grab.
This plot is simple, easy to get on board with and has the feel of a Western, at times. The latter stems from how the film characterizes its locations as a nearly lawless land that feels like a wide open space, while still keeping the protagonists trapped and immobile.
What sets it apart from other action films is its suspenseful atmosphere. With most of the movie taking place at night and the gang members seemingly materializing out of nowhere, it creates a certain brand of eeriness that amplifies the already present claustrophobia within the confined setting of the police station.
When it comes to casting, there are some fine actors here to get through this night of violence. The big stand-out is Darwin Joston as the criminal Napoleon Wilson. His smart-alecky remarks and running joke of asking for a cigarette make for an endearing and all-around badass character. It also helps that he knows how to work a shotgun better than anyone you’ve ever seen.
Then there’s Austin Stoker as Lt. Bishop. He’s dependable as the average joe hero, keeping everyone alive the best he can. As for Laurie Zimmer as the secretary, Leigh, she’s only okay. Her acting seems to be slightly below average at points, but otherwise she holds her own as a solid female fighter.
This is one of those films that takes its time to set everything up before the poo hits the fan. While that may translate to a slightly slower pace than something like “John Wick,” it pays off tremendously as the suspenseful introduction of the world turns into tension over the characters’ survival in a cramped fight area.
Given the tight budget, the film looks as professional and competent as any other top-quality action film. While there are maybe one or two instances where you can see the restrictions of said budget (obvious prop, missing sound effect), you don’t notice it for too long due to Carpenter’s great skill with filming, either through a wise camera shot of the environment or well-timed edit point during a fight.
This sense of raising the production value translates over to the action sequences. They’re handled well and sometimes pulled off in a way that’s different but surprisingly effective, like a car chase shot only from the front bumper of the pursued vehicle. The shootouts are particularly brutal. It feels grounded in a satisfying way while having the machismo style of other exploitation films from the same era.
Finally, the score composed by Carpenter himself is killer. Being known for his synth-oriented soundtracks, the music in this film has a menacing quality to it and encapsulates the dark feel of the movie perfectly.
“Assault on Precinct 13” is one of my favorites from Carpenter. He turned a chump change budget film into a tension-filled action film with likable characters, dark atmosphere and catchy music. If you want a movie that’s raining bullets Monday to Sunday, then this film may not be for you. It’s the kind of film that could’ve been a part of the crop of violent and sleazy, but came out with a little more substance. I recommend this movie off its atmosphere and tone alone.