In the opening scene, the handheld point of view is following a diverse group of Los Angeleno gang members who are obviously up to no good. The gritty style, in combination with John Carpenter’s pleasantly droning music, is immediately inviting. We begin to wonder: Why are we here? What are these guys up to? Just when you think you’re about to get an answer, the players are ambushed by police and brutally gunned down.
Come to think of it, you never really know what the gang members are up to or why they do what they do. Carpenter chooses to keep them enigmatic, which makes their resolve doubly spooky. You rarely (if ever) see them talking and there isn’t a singular villain who explains his diabolical plot to the audience. Lesser movies, such as the embarrassingly average 2005 remake with Ethan Hawke, would have missed the point: these guys are scary because we don’t what makes them tick. If Anton Chigurh had been the type to join a street gang, this is where he would have pledged.
Soon after the gundown, we’re introduced to Lieutenant Bishop (Austin Stoker), a green policeman who’s just been assigned overnight duty at the titular precinct which is about to be permanently closed down. It’s a thankless job, the last thing Bishop had in mind when he became a police officer. There he meets Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), a lifer who’s unexpectedly brought to the holding cells along with a handful of other prisoners. Then there’s Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), an oddly collected and level-headed clerical worker who seems as mysterious as the gang which besieges the precinct.
When Leigh first meets Bishop, she offers him coffee. “Black?” she asks him. “For over thirty years,” replies Bishop, before breaking out in a huge grin. It’s the kind of exchange modern movies really suck at. It’s reminiscent of the scene in the original Shaft, in which the characters compare the color of their skin to coffee mugs and point out they’re not so black and white after all. Fast forward to today and I’m guessing 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance is probably the last time a major action film dealt with race without completely embarrassing itself, which is pretty sad if you ask me.
So there are many details along the way, showing how the characters find themselves in the dangerous situation, but here’s all you need to know: the good guys are holed up in the building and the bad guys will stop at nothing to kill them. The great thing about Carpenter is he was a working class filmmaker who wasn’t interested in making movies the modern way. All you really need is a camera, a hero, and bad guys. That’s movies in their purest form.
Assault on Precinct 13 is one of my favorites—easily in my top fifty, perhaps twenty. The last time I saw it was on a badly worn VHS rental. Seeing it in HD blew my mind because I had no idea it looked this damn good. (Please forgive the low quality of the screenshots… I was having technical issues.) I’ve never enjoyed the film more thoroughly than I did tonight.