Assault on Precinct 13
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Assault on Precinct 13 remains one of John Carpenter's best movies. I doubt he would speak so favorable of this film. On his audio commentary track for Image Entertainment's DVD release of Assault on Precinct 13, he frequently laments about the movie's slow pacing. If he had edited it today, he would've tightened up the movie considerably. However, I think one of the movie's greatest virtues is its deliberate pacing in the introductory scenes. Matter of fact, I think Carpenter's recent movies are over edited. They're all too anxious to rush to the big action sequences, sacrificing atmosphere in favor of thrills. Meanwhile, Assault on Precinct 13 takes a deliberate approach that risks boredom. But in spite of the slow pacing, the movie is almost unbearably suspenseful.

You'll see a good clue of Carpenter's intentions simply by watching the opening credits, where the editing is credited to "John T. Chance." Film buffs will instantly recognize this as the name of John Wayne's character in Howard Hawks' classic Western Rio Bravo. Not surprisingly then, Assault on Precinct 13 contains several similarities to Rio Bravo: both movies tell the story of law officers fighting for their lives against a siege of their office/jail. The ragtag group must learn to fight together in order to survive against the overwhelming odds. Assault on Precinct 13 draws its inspiration from the Western — particularly those Westerns, such as Red River, in which Indians attacked a wagon train. Carpenter takes this situation and updates it to the present, substituting revenge hungry gang members for the Indians.

In Assault on Precinct 13, Austin Stoker plays a police officer assigned to oversee the closing of an obsolete precinct station. It should be a quiet evening as all the activity is routed to a new building, but these plans don't exactly proceed as planned. A gang vows a vendetta against the city's police force after several of their members are ambushed and gunned down. Blacks, whites, Chicanos, Orientals — all races join together in an all-out assault meant to even the score. By happenstance, Precinct 13 is chosen for this siege, which doesn't bode well for anyone still inside this facility.

This story swerves perilously close to Night of the Living Dead. Both movies involve an isolated building where a small group of people struggle to survive against a mob that mindlessly continues its assault. The gang members beat down doors and crawl through windows — only to get sawed off by shotgun blasts. And both movies give us a black actor in the lead role who solicits cooperation from the group trapped inside. Sound familiar?

Much of the movie's momentum comes from the simplicity of the scenario. This is not a complicated movie. Darwin Josten plays a good badman (like the Ringo Kid in John Ford's Stagecoach). In order for the group to survive, the law enforcement authorities must solicit Josten's help in order to ward off the attackers. At one point, in a direct borrowing from a similar scene in both Red River and Rio Bravo, the law officer (Stoker) throws a shotgun to Josten who grabs it out of mid air and instantly fires off the shots that cut down the attackers. Likewise, remember the scenes from Red River where an Indian's arrow finds Joanne Dru's shoulder and she hardly flinches? Well, here we get a similar scene with Laurie Zimmer taking a bullet in the arm.

Assault on Precinct 13 is a fun movie for film buffs to watch and decipher all the influences. But it's also marvelously powerful. The acting is sometimes amateurish. In particular, Laurie Zimmer gives a fairly wooden performance. And the movie's depiction of the gang members becomes overly simplistic long before the movie grinds to its smoky conclusion. But in only his second feature film (following Dark Star), Carpenter shows a remarkable ability to create nerve-wracking suspense. This ability would serve him well in his next film, Halloween.

Image Entertainment's DVD presentation of Assault on Precinct 13 comes with several extras, including a nice selection of stills and storyboard sketches. An interview with John Carpenter and Austin Stoker was filmed during a fan convention. It's almost like a home recording. The audio during the interview is murky and difficult to understand. This extra is of dubious value. John Carpenter's audio commentary is likely the most valuable extra here. He speaks intelligently throughout the movie and offers several insights into the movie's production. This DVD release of Assault on Precinct 13 feels like it's about one extra short of being a must-have package. An interview specifically conducted and filmed for this disc would have been a big improvement over the cut-rate fan convention interview. Nonetheless, this is still a valuable disc. The high-definition digital transfer looks great.

Assault on Precinct 13 is now available on DVD from Image Entertainment in a new high-definition digital film transfer in the original 2.35:1 Panavision aspect ratio. Special features: interview with John Carpenter and Austin Stoker; radio spots; still gallery; audio commentary by John Carpenter; original theatrical trailer; and isolated audio track for John Carpenter's score. Suggested retail price: $19.95 each. For more information, check out the Image Entertainment Web site.