He set the slasher standard with HALLOWEEN, created one of cult cinema's most proficient badasses with Snake Plissken and proved that remakes can be just as entertaining as their source material with THE THING, but before all that, John Carpenter tried his hand at a modernizing the western with ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. Updating the dusty roads of one-horse towns to the gritty streets of downtown Los Angeles, Carpenter staged a confined action thriller that potholed both criminal and law-abiding citizens into a situation in which the only way to survive is to somehow find solidarity.
After several of their brothers are gunned down by police, the remaining members of the gang Street Thunder take a blood oath to enact bloody revenge on behalf of their fallen brethren. Choosing an understaffed police station, precinct 9, division 13, as the outlet for their rage, the street gang calls to arms in preparation of a late night siege. Essentially babysitting a building full of boxes, Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker, SHEBA, BABY) watches over the 9th precinct's last operational hours with only a small handful of remaining staff to take care of as the station is scheduled to be closed the following day. The monotony of moving files and papers is however shattered when a prison bus, transporting a small group of convicts, makes a pit stop at the precinct. Shortly after the bus's arrival, a ceremonial cocktail of blood is thrown down by Street Thunder, signifying their arrival and all but ensuring that those still inside the station are their to stay. Berating the building with a dizzying barrage of bullets, those trapped inside find themselves out manned and unable to call for backup, as Street Thunder inches closer to the front door. Making a judgment call, Lieutenant Bishop frees the convicts, including Snake Plissken precursor Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston, THE FOG), in an attempt to better protect and fortify the structure in which they find themselves trapped.
ASSAULT presented Carpenter’s with his first straight shooting schedule, resulting in a finished work that is considerably more polished that his first student film run amuck, DARK STAR, an outer space comedy co-written by Dan O'Bannon (ALIEN, THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD). Impressive given its meager budget, ASSAULT has grown to garner a much disserved cult following, as have the majority of Carpenter's earlier films. A homage to Howard Hawks RIO BRAVO, ASSAULT is in many ways a love letter to 1950s westerns and old school studio filmmaking in general. With RIO BRAVO as a template, one that the director would return to in 2001 with GHOSTS OF MARS, Carpenter sets a steady tempo that slowly builds to a climatic standout and while the dialogue is often hokey, the deliberate pace proves successful at building drama and tension. In addition to RIO BRAVO, Carpenter has previously stated the influence that George A. Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD had in regards to the Street Thunder gang and the way in which they surround and attempt to penetrate the police precinct. Save for four gang members, seen early on cutting themselves to give blood to the ceremonial Cholo, or blood oath, the gang operates as a faceless collective, swarming their prey and blocking off any means of escape.
Perhaps the film's largest fault is that it is never able to top the initial shock of seeing what is often referred to as “the ice cream scene”, in which a little girl (Kim Richards) is blasted to kingdom come while eating her vanilla twist. Taking place in the first act, the scene lets the viewer know to expect extreme violence, with little if any notice, at any given time, but as effective as the hail of bullets that rain down on the 9th precinct are, they just can't live up to the alarm of seeing a little girl's unwarranted assignation. The film's tension is also occasionally broken by scenes that are just too ridiculous for words, such as the strange clapping game that Napoleon and Wells (Tony Burton, THE BLACK GODFATHER), two harden criminals, use to decide which of them should risk sneaking out of the precinct in order to hotwire a nearby car and seek help. Such moments are however easy to overlook as once the picture gets moving, it's hard to walk away from. While clothing and hairstyles do date it, the film still packs a punch, itself inspiring reinterpretations of the martial both stateside, with a 2005 remake starring Laurence Fishburne, and abroad, with Nid de guêpes, released on DVD in he U.S. as THE NEST.
Image Entertainment originally released a "Special Edition" of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 on DVD in 2003 but has since revisited the material to present a "Restored Collector’s Edition" that makes noticeable improvements to both picture and sound. Presented in a anamorphic high-definition digital film transfer that preserves the original 2.35:1 Panavision aspect ratio, it’s safe to say that ASSAULT has never looked better. Colors are rich and vivid with deep black levels and impressive detail. Likewise the film's audio shows considerable care with Dolby Digital Mono, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 tracks to choose from. The new 5.1 surround audio mix is a marked improvement form the previous special edition with the sound of bullets flying realistic enough to cause one to duck and cover. Carpenter’s original soundtrack is also available as an isolated score along with optional Spanish subtitles and English subtitles for the deaf and hearing-impaired. As notable as this disc's presentation is, I’m not as thrilled with the "Restored Editions" cover art, but I was never really all that elated with the "Special Edition" either, which features what appears to be a silhouette of Rowdy Roddy Piper towering over lower Manhattan.
The menus have changed but the supplements remain the same as Image Entertainment has carried over the special features from their previous "Special Edition", for their "Restored Collector's Edition", which is also available on Blu-ray. Carpenter provides an audio commentary that allows for the director to revisit one of his first theatrical efforts. John's voice is actually quite soothing and with only a few lulls in his banter, the track proves to be an informative and entertaining look back at one of the director’s first film. An interview with Carpenter and Austin Stoker features a 23 minute conversation taken at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood on January 25th in 2002. The quality of the interview is poor, apparently taken with a home video camera, as the picture is dark and rather murky but you can hear what the two men have to say and that's what's important. The film's original theatrical trailer, which has seen better days, is also included along with two radio spots and a production gallery that runs for over 16 minutes, containing scans of Carpenter’s script, originally titled "The Anderson Alamo", along with storyboards, lobby cards, one sheets, reviews and behind-the-scenes snapshots that provide a glimpse into how the film was marketed both in America and overseas. (Jason McElreath)
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