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Assault on Precinct 13 (1976): DVDetails
Reviewed by Gary Mitchel, © 2005

Format: Movie
By:   John Carpenter (writer, director)
Genre:   Action
Released:   DVD Released November 9, 2004
Review Date:   January 27, 2005
Audience Rating:   R
RevSF Rating:   7/10 (What Is This?)

"This was supposed to be vanilla twist." — Kathy

The phrase "they don't make 'em like this anymore" is a bit of a cliché, but like most clichés there's a grain of truth to it. That's the case with this fun little flick. Made way, way back in 1976, the original Assault is a cool independent film. Inspired by the Howard Hawks western Rio Bravo, John Carpenter wrote this flick about a small, mixed group under siege. (Not that Under Siege. Someone get Segal out of here).

Shot for about $100 grand, Assault is surprisingly well done. Carpenter was just developing his directorial style, and the use of Panavision cameras made the film look like it was made with more cash. Clever editing managed to make mostly sunny southern L.A. look more dangerous than usual, and a fast-paced screenplay keeps the movie moving quick enough to gloss over plot holes.

The story is simple. Six members of the street gang "Street Thunder" are brutally mowed down by the cops. The four gang leaders, having acquired a mass of assault weapons, swear a blood oath to make the cops pay. They attack the precinct of the title on its last day of operation, before it's closed down for a new building a few miles away.

The cast consists mainly of stock characters. Lt. Bishop (Austin Stoker) is The Cop on His First Day on the Job, who has the job of watching over the station on its last night. There are a few other station staff members. Added to them is a group of three cons, who were being moved to death row, and their three guards. One of cons is Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Johnson), the Honorable Bad Man. The cons are brought to the station because one of them is almost deathly ill and needs a doctor.

Our final cast member is the poor sap who triggers the attack on the station. This poor guy is lost in a bad section of L.A., and while he's at a pay phone getting directions his daughter Kathy (Kim Escape from Witch Mountain Richards) is cruelly murdered by one of the gang members. The father kills him in return, then runs from the rest of the gang, reaching the station with the thugs right on his heels. What follows is a fast series of attacks by the gangs and our heroes doing their best to hold them off.

Carpenter's direction isn't as polished as his later work, but you can see his style forming up nicely. Wilson is in the same mold as the cool, line-spouting antiheroes in his other films, usually played by Kurt Russell (see Escape from New York or The Thing). But Wilson's not quite as dark as Plissken or MacReady; he's more like Nada (Rowdy Roddy Piper) in They Live.

However, Wilson, Bishop, and the rest of the cast are really just archetypes that do what they have to do to keep the script rolling. The gang members are faceless thugs who show up to either kill or die, and none of them has any lines. This all fits the old-school Western feel that Carpenter was going for when he wrote the flick, but it means it's not very deep.

What makes the movie worth watching, and owning, are Johnson's portrayal of Wilson, the directness of the film, its place as a historical document of Carpenter's early work, and the fact it's a pretty cool little action flick.

DVDetails

As a DVD, however, Assault leaves a lot to be desired. While it's a beautiful transfer and restoration of the print (except for one scratchy spot) in the correct aspect ratio, there are few extras.

There is a cool "how this was all made" piece by producer Joseph Kaufman, along with the original trailer and a commentary track by Carpenter.

Now, I love John Carpenter. He's one of my favorite directors, and several of his films are my all-time favorites. (As with most geeks, I'm sure. Anyone who doesn't love The Thing, Escape From New York, or Big Trouble in Little China is in serious danger of losing any geek cred. Enjoyment of They Live, Starman and Prince of Darkness is suggested but not required.)

Having said that, this is one of the most boring commentaries I've ever listened to. Carpenter spends most of it telling you what you're seeing. ("Here we watch him get in the car. Now we see him rolling down the window. If I made this flick now, I'd speed this scene up. Now he's driving.") There are a few nuggets of filmmaking advice and interesting "behind the scenes" bits, but on the whole you can just skip it.

There are no interviews, no looks back, no behind-the-scenes materials, nothing at all that could be called an extra these days. The fact that the movie itself is in widescreen and is a high-quality transfer is the disk's saving grace.

I recommend buying it if you're a Carpenter completist or a fan of old-school action flicks. Otherwise, you're probably OK with a rental.

Movie Rating: 7/10

DVD Rating: 2/10


 
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