At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Assault on Precinct 13 “76”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Assault on Precinct 13 “76”


MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Crime Thriller/ Stars: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Martin West, Tony Burton, Charles Cyphers, Nancy Loomis, Henry Brandon, Kim Richards/ Runtime: 91 minutes

I feel that if there was ever a director who, at the top of his filmmaking prowess, was able to successfully turn a movie they were making into a ride that would thrill an audience while also respecting their intelligence, John Carpenter is one of the few directors I would immediately consider right off the bat to put on the list. Indeed, to be fair, James Cameron is also known for doing this, but in his case he just simply chooses to just add more plot to his movies thus running the risk of horribly cluttering up the movie in question. Carpenter on the other hand chooses to go the opposite direction of this, and instead takes a simple premise, throws a group of characters together in a situation, and lets everything evolve and unwind on their own. With that being said, I definitely feel that Carpenter’s movie “Assault on Precinct 13” deserves to be mentioned in this very discussion. Indeed here is a very low-budget thriller with a simple yet terrifying premise that manages to takes a cast of virtual unknowns, places them in a harrowing situation together, doesn’t really delve into their backgrounds or who they were before the events that’re played out, and then sits back and lets us watch as everything just unfolds like clockwork. Indeed this movie is not only absolutely brilliant in a very unique yet subtle way. It is also a wonderful sign of just what was to come from a now-celebrated director who also has managed to create some truly timeless tales and come up with techniques that have managed to change the film industry forever.

The plot is as follows: Assault on Precinct 13 tells the story of a new cop on the force named Bishop who, for his first ever assignment, finds himself put in charge for the night of a police precinct that is transferring to a better location. Yet as the majority of the office’s equipment is carried out, and the closing is well underway, 2 distinct events quickly decide to play an impact in the day’s proceedings. The first comes from far away and takes the form of a bus load of convicts including a notorious murderer deciding to stop at the shuttering precinct due to the fact that one of the criminals onboard seems to be coming down with a harsh cough and is in desperate need of some kind of medical attention. Meanwhile in the area around downtown, a young girl and an ice cream truck driver are tragically murdered by a group of ruthless gang members. Yet while her father is able shoot his daughter’s killer, the experience leaves him catatonic and having to flee from the remaining members of the gang all the way to the crumbling precinct (oh the irony). Of course it should go without saying, but the gang members don’t really care where he is hiding, and after giving everyone inside a chance to turn the man over, the gang decides to begin a ruthless siege of the precinct with the idea in mind to eventually kill everyone inside in a daring suicide raid. Thus finding himself trapped inside the shuttered building with two notorious prisoners, a few staff members, and a cranky jail warden, it is up to Bishop and this unlikely group to not only keep the man alive, but also to try to think of a way to stay alive themselves from the vicious gang outside until help is able to arrive. If help ever arrives in the first place that is……

Now one of the first striking things about Assault on Precinct 13 is that this film looks absolutely stunning. Indeed I get that this is a film which was made on an extremely low budget yet this is a low-budget effort where a large percentage of the money that it was allocated beyond any and all doubt must have gone to the cinematography department. Indeed not only is the film’s cinematography vibrant, innovative, three-dimensional, and colorful, but I also love how this film does an absolutely amazing job in its quest to portray Los Angeles as a gritty yet suburban wasteland overrun by gangs. Indeed I feel that this is an accomplishment that this film does better than nearly any other film that really comes to mind. Yet the thing that truly makes the cinematography as effective and potent as it is isn’t that this film has an overabundance of shots that are over-the-top, and involve either rundown buildings, heavily populated streets, or both. Instead this film wisely chooses to focus on seemingly vast spaces that also manage to possess seemingly nondescript houses and buildings, and then makes it look as if everything is then fading into absolute nothingness. Indeed it just plain and simply feels like we are watching a movie that is set more in a vast and endless desert rather than a vast and thriving metropolis. Not only that, but in regards to the design for the titular police station, I feel that the set designers did a brilliant job of making sure that the main location, both in regards to interior design and camera work, was able to match the desolation on display within the suburban wasteland outside the police station fairly well.

Now I also feel that a huge contributor towards the desolation that was being sought after for this particular film is the score that director John Carpenter decided to compose for this particular movie. I mean this is a score that, like the movie it is a crucial part of, is in equal measure frantic, chaotic, and every bit just as nerve wracking. Indeed, although it’s technically primitive in every sense of the word, I still feel that not only is the score just as good as any of the other themes he has created in his career, but that Carpenter is also just as talented as a film composer as he is as a director. Indeed I feel that Carpenter’s utilization of the motif, right down to the hypnotic repetition, is eerily similar to the master composers that are Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone. However although Carpenter is clearly trying with a degree of love and respect to imitate these 2 masters, I do feel that in many respects that Carpenter was also doing something completely new yet remarkable with how he managed to tie music into whatever story he was trying to tell.

Now although there aren’t any “big-name” actors in this cast of players, although a couple would come back for at least 2 more go-arounds in Halloween and The Fog respectively, I still feel that each of them do an absolutely fantastic job with the role they are given and make the most of the time they are on screen. Indeed I also feel that by not hiring any movie stars for the parts, Carpenter managed to, at least from an acting standpoint, make this seem more like a documentary and that for all we knew these were real people who went through a real tragedy and that aids the movie’s aimed sense of naturalism immensely.

All in all “Assault on Precinct 13” was John Carpenter’s first stab at the directing game in Hollywood and believe me: it isn’t hard to see that. Indeed this is a film which is simultaneously both flawed yet also imperfect from both a technical standpoint as well as in other areas of the film, with particular regard to the fact that not only is some of this film’s dialogue honestly needed quite a bit of tuning-up, but that the acting on display herein is also nothing incredible by any stretch of the imagination. Yet it also still has a terrific sense of urgency as well as a level of frantic pacing that manages to go the distance and make this movie ultimately earn with flying colors the long, seemingly non-stop, and quite brutal assault that is at the heart of the film…even though the setup manages to take over forty minutes to get us there. Indeed this may not be a flawless film by any stretch of the imagination, but it will now and always prove to be one of my favorites of this particular genre of film. On a scale of 1-5 I give Assault on Precinct 13 “76” a solid 4 out of 5.