Assault On Precinct 13

tn_assaultonprecinct13“Hey, this is regular vanilla. I wanted vanilla twist.”

PROGRAMMING NOTE: I sincerely thought CREED was coming out last Friday and wanted the ROCKY reviews to run right into my review of that. But now I ran out of ROCKYs and I don’t want to leave you guys with nothing new to read on the day before Thanksgiving. So here’s one that has a minor connection to the ROCKY series that will come up later. This movie is based on westerns, and the characters who represent the cowboys and the Indians don’t even come close to eating sweet potatoes together, but I still think this is a good one for Thanksgiving. This year (as in many years) we’ve lost some really extraordinary people who inspired and entertained me over the years. That really reminds me not to take for granted the directors and movies I love, for example John Carpenter and ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. Thank you, people who make great movies, and thank you all for being here with me to share in their celebration.

Of all the John Carpenter movies that are like westerns, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 is the most like a western. You’ve got a lieutenant (Austin Stoker, BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, MACH 2) who’s like a sheriff, holed up in an about-to-be-shut-down police station that’s like a jailhouse. You’ve got a prisoner transfer and a siege where the lieutenant and a notorious killer (Darwin Joston, THE FOG, ERASERHEAD) have to work together, and they sort of become friends. The hostile territory is a ghetto, Anderson, California, and the Indians are a WARRIORS-like multi-ethnic gang. They even do a bloodletting ritual before the siege.

But the scary thing about these gangsters is they don’t talk, and they keep coming. We mostly see them in the distance, at night, scurrying behind trees for cover. Then we see their hands reaching through the windows, or their bullets hitting windows, walls, cops. It’s such a good approach because there are so many ways these types of characters could’ve been silly. If the guy who looks like Che were talking to the cops he would probly use dated slang, have some corny line delivery, make us laugh. It would be fun to watch, but he’d be less menacing. As a silent force he’s much more effective.

At first there are four of them. Then you see more running up. Twenty plus. Then more. Who knows when they’ll stop coming? The bulk of the movie is confined to this space, but maybe that’s a good thing. When this war creeps into the real world, and the daylight, Kim Richards, the little girl from ESCAPE FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN, gets blown the fuck away while eating an ice cream cone. Even by modern standards this early scene tells you the movie means business.

I’ve always thought of ASSAULT as more of a loose remake of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD than of RIO BRAVO, which it seems to get compared to most. A group of people stuck together, sheltered in a place they’re not all familiar with, arguing about what to do, working together to come up with a plan using the resources they have. There’s even boarding up the windows and making a run for a car, not to mention a black hero without any explicit discussion of race.

mp_assaultonprecinct13The convict anti-hero is named Napoleon Wilson, the first in a long line of colorful names for badasses in Carpenter movies. And I guess he’s more RIO BRAVO because he has a face straight out of an old western. Joston did get a couple chances: he was on an episode of The Virginian, and in a western comedy called CAIN’S WAY. He’s so cool in this movie that it’s surprising he didn’t move on to something bigger. He ended his acting career with a string of bit parts on ’80s TV shows, the final one being “Dog-Pound Attendant” on an episode of ALF in 1986. But apparently he worked as a driver and transportation captain on movies into the ’90s before dying of leukemia in ’98.

But that lack of familiarity from other roles only adds to his iconic appeal as the prototypical Carpenter anti-hero, who teases but never explains his infamy or his nickname. He never denies being a bad person, but acts like a decent, honorable one the whole time we’re with him. He spends the first 2/3 of the movie trying to get a cigarette, so when the secretary Leigh (Laurie Zimmer, who somehow only did three other movies) not only obliges him, but lights a match one-handed to ignite it, you want to marry her on the spot.

She’s actually my favorite character. In contrast to the other secretary (Nancy Loomis, who was later in HALLOWEEN and THE FOG) she keeps her cool. When an invader knicks her arm with a bullet she doesn’t scream or complain. She stands and stares him down as he aims at her chest, then she kicks him hard in the dick. In another scene she puts her hand over the barrel of the prisoner Wells (Tony Burton, who plays Apollo Creed’s trainer Duke and is the only actor besides Sylvester Stallone and Burt Young to appear in all six ROCKY movies – see, I told you it would connect)’s gun as he threatens her. She tries to talk him down and then turns away in disgust when she notices the gun isn’t even loaded, says it’s a waste of time.

By the way, if I understand correctly it’s actually an assault on Precinct 9, Division 14. But Precinct 13 sounds cooler. I don’t blame them.

These three badass characters manage to defeat the attacking hordes with a brilliant strategy: luring them into a hall, holding them back with a barrier built out of a sign until they can shoot a tank and blow them all up. It’s a little bit Battle of Thermopylae the way they’re so outnumbered and manage to corral them into a narrow spot like that.

Only then does the backup finally fuckin arrive. The officers step through the piles of burnt up bodies and as the smoke clears they see our trio standing there holding a club, a gun and a bedpost, ready to bash anybody else who comes at them.

When they tell Leigh they have a stretcher for her she takes a good long look at Wilson, knowing this is goodbye. Then she struts away. No stretcher.

It feels like this temporary truce has involved strong enough bonding for a life-long friendship, but they’re not gonna all turn into the Fast and Furious gang afterwards. They recognize that they have to go back to normalcy now, and probly never see each other again. But they also know they have each other’s permanent respect.

“It would be a privilege if you’d walk outside with me,” Lieutenant Bishop says.
“I know it would,” says Napoleon.
He laughs. “You’re pretty fancy, Wilson.”
“I have moments.”

A perfect ending is made double whammy perfect by the incredible keyboard theme that comes on as they walk out together. This happens to be my favorite Carpenter score. So simple and catchy, half eerie, half badass. The ultimate analog synth score, it found its way into Afrika Bambaataa’s DJ routines, and became his theme:

And did you know about the British version with added horns and soul vocals by Jimmy Chambers? I didn’t until frequent commenter Anaru enlightened me not that long ago. Check this shit out:

That’s amazing, partly because I went so long not knowing it existed, partly because as much as I love both Carpenter themes and soul music I’m still surprised how well they fit together. But I just like listening to it as a song. As a theme on the actual movie I think it’s misleading, because it implies a movie with more anger at “the system.” This is more matter-of-fact about it. The gangsters do seem to have been wronged, because in the opening inciting incident police open fire on gangsters who don’t appear to be armed, and then it’s described as a shootout. But if the song is about their struggle it’s giving them a humanity that the movie deliberately takes away. If it’s about Napoleon it’s overdoing it a little too, because he’s not fighting against the system, he’s actually working with it for survival.

Anyway, I love ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. Way to make a first post-film-school feature, John Carpenter!

This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 25th, 2015 at 10:57 am and is filed under Action, Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

37 Responses to “Assault On Precinct 13”

  1. The BTS stories for this are priceless. Like how Carpenter’s buddy Tommy Lee Wallace agreed to be art director, even though he didn’t know dick what an art director actually did. Or that they had no projection screens so they pinned bed sheets to the wall and projected the dailies on it.

  2. Madlib did a remix of Nas’ Made You Look to the Assault on Precinct 13 theme that is totally bad ass.

  3. Jay – That sounds pretty killer. I never really got into Madlib like that cause sometimes his shit is too unconventional for it’s own good (though Dilla balanced him out well on the JAYLIB collabs) but since the theme to this one is my favorite John Carpenter theme of all time and Nas is my favorite rapper tracking it down sounds like a no brainer.

  4. It seems to have been taken off youtube, but it was on Mind Fusion vol.4

  5. Such a great, atmospheric movie. I love how the badguys are sort of faceless punk zombies, before faceless punk zombies were cool. I love the fact that the main good guy is black, and doesn’t get shot at the end (like in Night of the Living Dead), and the respect that’s engendered with the convict is really cool. It’s like two MMA fighters who hated each other pre-fight hugging each other after. It gets me every time.

  6. I refer you to the soundtrack of XENON 2: MEGABLAST:

  7. I wanted to back up the remarks about Darwin Joston; as moments go, Napoleon Wilson is a great one.

    As to the theme, I got Tricky too:

    Tricky - Bombing Bastards. Feat. Terranova

    вольная фантазия на муз. композицию "Tricky-bombing Basterds (Feat. Terranova)"

  8. The Original Paul

    November 26th, 2015 at 4:45 am

    Great review Vern. I agree with you 100% on this one. It always gets mentioned as a “Western”-type of movie, but to me (who’s more familiar with sci-fi and horror than the Western genre) it’s the quintessential monster movie, with the “monsters” in this case being the gang members attacking the place. They’re silent and relentless.

    I don’t have much to add to Vern’s review of this one, but I will absolutely endorse his comments on the movie’s score, which I own (big surprise, right?) and which compliments the movie’s tone perfectly. Think HALLOWEEN crossed with THE TERMINATOR; it’s a perfect product of its time. It’s cold, clinical, and with a strong-but-subtle undertow of desperation.

  9. Carpenter is a huge fan of Howard Hawks. And since Hawks used this RIO BRAVO story several times, this could just as well be a remake of EL DORADO or RIO LOBO. The gang members are perhaps from the horror genre, but everything else is from Hawks westerns.

  10. Pegsman – not disagreeing with you, I’m just saying how the film comes across to someone who’s more familiar with the horror genre than the western one. Obviously it’s going to be different to someone who’s more of a fan of westerns.

  11. Has anyone mentioned that the credits mention John T Chance as an editor? That is a nod to John Waynes character from RIO BRAVO.

  12. Nope Shoot, they haven’t. Nor that the character Leigh is supposedly named for Leigh Brackett, who wrote the screenplay of both RIO BRAVO and EL DORADO (and subsequently THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK).

    Nor have we had mention of Henry Brandon who played the station sergeant in this and Chief Scar, opposite Wayne, in THE SEARCHERS.

    All clues that Carpenter was interested in this as a western.

    In truth, I think Peckinpah had already joined the dots between horror and seige western some 5 years earlier with STRAW DOGS.

  13. The Original Paul

    November 26th, 2015 at 4:36 pm

    Borg – weirdly, STRAW DOGS struck me in exactly the opposite way. I thought it was full-blown Western. And again, that comes from somebody whose entire interest in Westerns is down to one film (UNFORGIVEN; I’ve watched others – John Wayne, Sergio Leone, etc – but UNFORGIVEN is the one that’s made the most impact on me.)

    But putting aside that (totally subjective) opinion for a second – we all agree that STRAW DOGS and ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 are completely different animals, right? Weirdly, for a film whose antagonists are thugs who have less apparent humanity than Robert Patrick’s T-1000, it’s pretty optimistic in terms of showing what people are capable of when pushed to their limits. Killers, cops and civillians, working together with mutual respect to overcome their differences and survive a common threat? This is very, very, very different to STRAW DOGS’ portrayal. The invaders there are a lot more “human”, and that’s not a good thing in a film whose central premise seems to be “when pushed to our limits, all humans are animals.”

  14. Since we’re trotting out variations on Carpenter’s theme, here’s my favorite. Well, close to it. I found a remix on youtube years ago, but I can’t find it now. But anyway, close enough:

    John Carpenter's - The End (Assault on precinct 13) Disco Version 1983

    John Carpenter's - The End (Assault on precinct 13) Disco Version 1983

  15. Hey Vern, it was me that clued you into the vocal version of the theme.

    Here’s another version that you might not have heard considering it’s got a different name. This one is just straight up synth porn:

  16. Paul, I didn’t mean to have a go at you, I was just throwing my two cents in. Funny – or perhaps mildly interesting – I can’t write anything here anymore when I’m at work. Our IT departement have put Outlawvern.com on the list of sights with “adult content”.

  17. Have your outlawvern.com browsing activites have had a negative impact on your job performance or something?

  18. In my job you could write a novel every week and still do your job, so I don’t think so.

  19. The Original Paul

    November 27th, 2015 at 7:06 am

    Wow, seriously?

    I told you guys not to upload your porn collections to the OutlawVern servers!

  20. I guess they have a program that does this automatically, but I seriously don’t get what words or images on here that it could react to.

  21. pegsnab- if you have all that free time I take it you are a government employee

  22. Yes! But I can’t tell you what it is, I’m afraid. Security measures and all that bull…

  23. Because of that shooting you mentioned a few years back? Or are you putting me on?

  24. No putting. I don’t want to sound all mysterious, but…and this is not a line from BURN NOTICE..for the last 27 years I’ve been in a line of security work where you’re sitting around waiting for something that you hope never will happen. And except for that one shooting, and a hammer incident, nothing has. Just look at me like a cross between Dude Lebowski and Johan Falk’s boss, I guess.

  25. Well, Johan Falk´s boss got shot.

  26. Can you tell us about the hammer incident? It has nothing to do with SLEDGE HAMMER, right?

  27. Dear God, Pegsman is a Fed. This explains so much…

  28. Ok I was joking just then… didn’t read the last few posts before writing it… but apparently I’m barking up the wrong tree, so to speak.

    Pegsman – you’re the guy with the big red button? Whoa.

  29. Shoot, that’s a story I can tell. Some (can I say deranged, or is that politically incorrect?) woman brought a hammer to the place I work. She had plans to hit her husband with it, but yours truly saw her taking it out of her bag and got between them, and by
    (pure luck) I got a good hold of the hammer twisting it out of her hands with a (dare I say it) elegant manouver. Then the plain clothes police man beside me got attacked by the riot police, but that’s another story, children…

  30. pegsman- this sounds like something out of BANSHEE. Are you sure you are not taking another man´s identity?

  31. Laurie Zimmer is my favorite character too. She’s just awesome and cool, especially in the scene where she gets shot in the arm. It’s astonishing Zimmer only did a few movies. She’s looks and sounds like Lauren Bacall, who famously starred in Howard Hawks’ movie as his ideal woman the way Grace Kelly’s was Hitchcock. Her character’s name Leigh also had to have been an homage by Carpenter to Leigh Brackett, screenwriter of Hawks’ movies THE BIG SLEEP and RIO BRAVO(and later wrote the first draft of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK).

  32. Not quite, Shoot. If my life were a movie or television series it would look more like something from Jim Jarmush.

  33. On the theme tune remixes subject, Bomb The Bass did an early one with Megablast in the 80s:

    Bomb The Bass - Megablast *1988*

    Rhythm King Records,Megablast(Hip Hop On Precinct 13)(3:54),Mixed By - Mark Saunders,Scratches-Nellee Hooper,Vocals-Aurra(2),Merlin,She Rockers

    Also, worth noting that it is heavily influenced by Scorpio’s Theme by Lalo Schiffrin and Immigrant Song, which is an awesome pedigree. Not many tunes have got that.

  34. I was kinda dreading a rewatch of this because I figured it would be too “old”, low-budget, and leisurely paced, but this movie is even better than I remember. I might like it even more than Halloween. Even though the plot we all remember doesn’t fully form until there’s about 30 minutes left, the setup to get us there is always interesting because we’ve got simple, iconic characters, snappy dialogue, and performances that may not be for everyone but are definitely fun. Laurie Zimmer’s acting style might best be described as “deadpan” but holy crap is she sexy. So sexy that I might have to suggest my wife wear a yellow turtleneck with a bullet hole in the arm in it for next year’s Halloween.

    One takeaway from this watch I didn’t remember was the massacre of the gang members at the beginning Vern mentioned. It’s interesting that the gang never says a word the entire movie but that one scene almost completely humanizes them – their persistence and dedication the rest of the movie isn’t just evocative of unstoppable monsters and zombie movies, it kinda makes them weirdly admirable (even though they y’know, shoot kids and everything).

    Anyway, this movie is so influential you see pieces of it in horror/home invasion movies like You’re Next and The Strangers, and also action movies like 48 Hrs and Die Hard. It’s a true American Classic, an example of what you can do with no budget but lots of talent and hard work. It belongs in the National Film Registry, whatever the hell that is.

  35. Wow, the remake of this is even worse than I remember. It makes a lot of on-paper “improvements” that should work like gangbusters – bigger budget, all-star cast, more backstory and character development, an actual central villain – but absolutely none of it works. It has none of the mood or dread of the original and no cool action beats or memorable characters to make up for it. For a movie that (15 year old SPOILER) casually executes its leading lady halfway through, it certainly finds a way to be as dull and unmemorable as its generic action-movie score. It’s funny James DeMonaco actually ended up approximating the original better in The Purge than he does in this remake! (Hell, SWAT: Under Siege remakes this remake(!) and does a better job of it)

    I think this might be a career low for Laurence Fishburne. He was likable and engaged even up through the third Matrix, and he even seemed interested in Predators while he was dragging the movie down. But this is some sub-Bruce Willis paycheck-cashing sleepwalking shit here – he’s not likable or cool and has no chemistry with Hawke. The movie keeps telling us how badass he is even though he does nothing badass, which wouldn’t be a problem normally but definitely is when the entirely plot depends on every other character dying because of him. Hawke’s character’s entire motivation and backstory is that he’s scarred and haunted about getting cops killed in his past, yet he coldly lets a cop painfully bleed to death rather than give up Fishburne. It’s an inconsistent, muddled mess, and no amount of endless headshots or Ja Rule talking about himself in the third person can fix it.

    One last thing: The absolute best thing about the original is that powerful last scene of the two heroes walking out side by side (I actually got kinda misty-eyed when Stoker pushed the other cop off of Joston). It’s feel-good and inspiring, but it’s also intriguing and interesting because for all we know Napoleon Wilson is still going to death row even after all the good he did. So of course the remake does the most predictable thing possible by having Hawke let Fishburne go at the end, even though Fishburne never really had a change of heart or saved him in anything more than a roundabout way. It’s cheap and unearned but also entirely obvious since it’s the most shitty Hollywood-remake way they could have ended it. I’m surprised there wasn’t a lost treasure chest of gold for them to split at the end while the rap music blares over the closing credits.

  36. Don’t mind me, just dropping by to randomly mention that I bought the CD single of Bomb The Bass’ MEGABLAST (HIP HOP ON PRECINCT 13) today and I feel like a more complete human being now.

  37. And now I feel even completererest, because I bought the “Scratch Mix” Disco version of the theme too. I guess I need to start an PRECINCT 13 remix collection.

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