RECAP: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976): John Carpenter

John Carpenter’s second feature film, Assault on Precinct 13 set the bar for future films. Carpenter speaks openly about the influence of Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead, and the nods to those classics are easy to find.

Don’t let that take away from this movie. Filmed on a $100,000 budget, Assault doesn’t have the time or money to shoot the hell out of its sets and characters. Instead, the movie focuses on its characters, finding the breaking point for each of them. Oh, and it does shoot the hell out of the set.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: After Los Angeles police kill members of the notorious Street Thunder gang , an about-to-close precinct station finds itself under retaliatory siege. 

Hero (7/10)

Sunshine and a cool breeze greet Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) as he left his west Los Angeles home for a night on the beat. The new California Highway Patrol officer yearns to start his new gig, whistling on his way to work.

Driving in his squad car, Bishop speaks with his captain on the radio. There’s a change of plans. Bishop will spend his first few hours on the job overseeing the shutdown of a defunct precinct station in nearby Anderson. (The station building actually has the number “14” on it, and the cops speak of “precinct nine,” but we’ll stick with the film’s title and call it Precinct 13.)

It's gonna be a bright, bright, bright, bright sunshine-y day.
It’s gonna be a bright, bright, bright, bright sunshine-y day.

Bishop arrives at his temporary digs to find two friendly cops and two friendly secretaries. All are eager to be out of the station for the night, the station’s last. Most of the gear is packed, and the power and phones will be shut down that night, if not before.

Bishop’s job is to stay at the station until 8PM, when the night shift will arrive and relieve him. Bishop was supposed to stay until 4AM. He stays for much less time, the most harrowing hour of his life.

Until then, Bishop can reminisce. He grew up nearby, and once, as a child, he was sent to the station for using foul language around his mother. That scared him onto the straight and narrow path that helped him walk “out myself when I was 20.”

Bishop is friendly with the staff, hell, with anyone. One of the secretaries, Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), offers him coffee and asks, “Black?” Bishop jokes, “For over 30 years.” Just the kind of cornball humor one expects from a straight-laced cop.

Bishop knows about the recent local crime wave and the gang wars. His explanation: “Could be sunspots.” This guy believes the best in people. Such confidence is probably what will save his life.

What started as an easy, boring night starts to go awry when a bus transporting convicts arrives and dumps three criminals, one of them an infamous murderer named Napoleon Wells (Darwin Boston), into the holding tanks until their wrangler can call a doctor. As he’s on the phone, the phone cuts out. We think it was the phone company. Turns out it was something much more sinister. A ravenous gang has surrounded the station and will kill everyone inside or die trying.

Everything goes to hell shortly after a local dad runs in gasping and rambling about some thugs who shot his daughter. The dad was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it’s about to get wronger and wronger for him.

As one cop exits the building and is shot to death by silenced weapons, and as the convicts try to leave the building out the back and some are shot to pieces, Bishop understands quickly that the station is under siege. He chortles about it. The sheer audacity of it.

Bishop rescues two convicts–Napoleon and a man named Wells (Tony Burton)–and returns them to their cells. Later, he lets them out when the severity of the attack becomes clear. Bishop’s savvy leadership and trusting nature will lead to his survival throughout the next hour or so.

Surrounding the station are 40 heavily armed gangsters on a death mission to kill the occupants of the police station. Bishop doesn’t know the circumstances of their mission, and he doesn’t care. He knows the the besieged will die unless they kill the besiegers. Bishop never asks for reasons why, nor does he allow those under his watch to consider any.

Bishop clings to his unwavering faith that Things Will Be All Right. “Someone is bound to drive by eventually,” he says. “This is a city.” That second statement he repeats incredulously later, after the gangsters have unloaded hundreds of rounds into the station.

Bishop is sensible, good under fire, and skilled in tactics. He directs each person with a gun to cover the most likely entrances. He has the dad shelter behind the front desk, the safest place in the station’s first floor.

For all this wisdom, Bishop ignores the one chance at early victory. The Blood Brothers, the villains who have sworn the blood oath against the police, approach the front door and unfurl their “Cholo” flag, declaring their intentions. Bishop, awed by the gesture, doesn’t fire at the three leaders. That might have unnerved the less well armed gangsters.

Throughout the night, Bishop never loses his cool. Their best laid escape plans fail, and Bishop’s optimism remains. “Maybe it was just a window breaking,” he says after hearing a bullet break that glass.

Lt. Ethan Bishop is a terrific cop and character. He makes everyone around him better, and his positive nature extends to those under his care.

Villain (4/10)

Assault is a rare action film in which the chief antagonists say almost nothing. Many horror movies use silent villains to terrify characters and audience alike, and Carpenter would later prove himself a master of that genre. It’s no surprise to find such elements in his first action movie.

The first sequence shows six gang members gunned down in an alley by several police officers. The gangsters walk along, going about their business, when without warning shotguns blast at them. We never see the cops’ faces, only their guns and the bodies they fell. The framing swaps the expected good guy/bad guy roles, making the cops the faceless villains and the gangsters the innocent victims. The camera in this scene is almost another gangster.

Carpenter is not making a social statement. He wants us to see the shootings from the perspective of the four lords of Street Thunder, a notorious LA-area gang that recently stole crates of automatic weapons. We see them in a dilapidated apartment, sitting silently around a table.

Four Street Thunder leaders on their way to kill all the police/stop by In-N-Out
Four Street Thunder leaders on their way to kill all the police/stop by In-N-Out

One of them, perhaps the guy who looks like he’s Che Guevara cosplaying, says “For the six,” the only lines spoken by any of them. The four leaders immediately draw knives and dig into their arms, draining blood into a bowl. They will avenge their fallen comrades with blood.

A newscaster later remarks on the unusual racial mixture of Street Thunder. I mentioned the Che guy, there’s also two whites dudes and a black guy. I guess that was unusual for LA gangs in the 1970s, and it’s probably unusual today.

Much of the first third of Assualt follows the four gang leaders, who I call the Blood Brothers, drive around town. Che drives the car at extremely low speed, like walking speed. They arm their stolen weapons with silencers, a neat toy and a crucial piece of equipment during their siege.

The Blood Brothers have sworn an oath called Cholo. They will avenge their fallen brethren if it means death, and they’ve convinced 40 other guys to join them. They are dangerous because they are willing to die, they are heavily armed, and they outnumber those in the station 10 or so to 1.

But we need to know what the Blood Brothers will do. We learn what in the movie’s most shocking scene, one of the most shocking scenes in 1970s cinema. One of the gang leaders murders an innocent girl over an ice cream cone.

Shooting the girl makes these silent killers as villainous as they could be.

Action/Effects (7/10)

Action scenes are few in this slow burn thriller. A long period of time sets up the Blood Brothers and their journey to Precinct 13 and the cops and civilians that fall under their fire.

Once all these people are together, hell breaks loose. The Blood Brothers, surrounding the station, first kill a cop named Cheney. Using silenced weapons, they shoot him several times without even the station staff noticing. “Cheney just fell down,” says Julie, one of the secretaries. Bishop takes a closer look. “He was shot.”

The convicts and the guards try to leave through the back. Four are killed, including the man who brought them there. Only Wells and Napoleon survive, and are thrown back in their cells for a bit.

Now the gangsters attack. They shoot every window until their clips empty. Papers and glass fly everywhere. Bishop risks his life to run into the captain’s office and rescue the bereaved dad, bringing him to the central area of the main floor behind high counters.

Two minutes pass without a word spoken, the only sounds bullets striking glass and walls. Windows break and then collapse. Blinds fall. Light fixtures crash. The number of rounds used exceeds imagination. These aren’t machine guns they’re using, mostly.

Stuff breaks, and that’s it, but the extended time of it boggles the mind. Assualt‘s initial strike must be one of the longest gunfire sequences. The effects team squibbed the hell out of that set. Having the papers fly was a great trick that added visual chaos to a scene of auditory fear.

The gangsters pause to regroup and reload. Bishop eyes the new men gathering outside. Perhaps 40 people are surrounding the station’s front entrance across the street.

The gangsters assemble behind four cars, following them as rolling shields and shooting the station front. Bishop expects they will try to enter the building now. He has Leigh release the prisoners and guard the back entrance. She’s shot in the arm, but escapes with help from Napoleon.

The armed people are such: Bishop, hunting rifle, guards the coffee room to the left of the entrance, reloading with a box of shells behind him; Wells, pistol, shoots from the window in the front door; Napoleon, shotgun, blasts enemies entering the window in the captain’s office; and Leigh, revolver, guards the rear entrance corridor.

For several minutes we watch these people shoot and kill dozens of men blood lusting enough to try to climb in through the windows. They come through without guns, and are easily killed by the heroes. Many of those entering the back door carry blunt weapons. Not all of them have guns, a fact not mentioned by the good guys, but surely considered.

The film cuts amongst the four to record all their kills, quickly cutting as the scene finishes. After the shootout, Julie, the secretary who wanted to throw the dad outside, is dead. The gangsters remove all the bodies outside the station in record time, even moving the prison bus and the cars to places where they will not arouse suspicion should anyone drive by.

These two scenes are simple. There’s not much choreography. It’s four people standing their ground. The editing makes the scene work, and the camera covers the police station well enough that we always know where characters are. In such a confined space, inconsistencies will magnify. Carpenter avoids any such problems, making the action scenes crackle with intensity and audacity.

Sidekicks (6/8)

Darwin Joston, member of the all-time memorable names club, plays Napoleon Wilson, himself well named, a convicted murderer being transferred to new digs. Napoleon first appears in his jail cell, ready to board the bus that will ferry him and some other prisoners.

Napoleon suffers the indignity of having a warden twice his age and twice his weight throw him out of a chair, just for kicks. “I don’t sit in chairs as well as I used to,” Napoleon says. Before he boards the bus, Napoleon exacts revenge, distracting the warden long enough to wrap his chain around him and drag him to the asphalt.

Napoleon is one of the few survivors of the initial attack on the station. The handler named Starker, a prisoner with black lung or something, and the bus driver are all shot as they leave the back of the station. Starker falls atop Napoleon as the former’s back explodes with blood. Bishop drags Napoleon inside, but still locks him and Wells in different cells.

Falling under siege doesn’t bother Napoleon much. He spoils for a fight, but is patient to wait for one to come to him. When the bad guys breach the station’s back door and shoot Leigh in the arm, Napoleon saves her by attacking a goon, shoving his arm between the bars, crashing his elbow down on the forearm to shatter the bone. Then Napoleon throws the injured man into the opposite wall.

Soon after this fight, Bishop drafts Napoleon into the fray when he tosses him a shotgun. Napoleon grins for the first time. He uses that shotgun to blast the hell out of bad guys trying to climb through shot-out windows.

Wells, Benson, Napoleon
Wells, Bishop, Napoleon

Fighting guys, getting caught in crossfire, nearly dying in a blood feud he had no part in: these things do not worry Napoleon. He’s only after one thing: a cigarette. “Anybody got a smoke?” he asks most of the people he meets and several times throughout the movie.

Leigh is the person who actually has a smoke for Napoleon. Laurie Zimmer is the straight-faced, take-charge secretary helping close down the station. Like many people in the law enforcement industry, she recognizes Napoleon by site, but she’s sensible enough to keep her mouth shut about it. Famous murderers often enjoy the spotlight, but she won’t give him the satisfaction.

From the first shot to the last, Leigh is unflappable. If she was born 30 years later she’d be a terrific cop, because she’s with Bishop each step of the way, in shooting skill, fearlessness, and with ideas on improving their odds of living through the night.

Leigh is the only character shot to survive the movie. A goon breaks in the back door and shoots her in the right arm. She kicks the shooter in the groin and throws him into the cell with Napoleon, where the murderer breaks his arm.

Leigh takes Bishop’s revolver and guards the back entrance. She kills three men as they clamor down the hall by the holding tanks. Later, she’s seen reloading the pistol with her left hand. After the first gun battle, Leigh can’t move her arm, but you won’t hear her complain a peep or even whimper as Napoleon helps bandage the wound. ‘Tis merely a flesh wound.

As Wells cowers after the gun fight, he points his pistol at the others holed up in the station, including Leigh. “I’ve been shot once tonight,” she says, “I don’t feel like a second time.” Then she realizes that Wells’s gun is empty. She’s tough as nails and smart as a whip.

Leigh shooting some mugs
Leigh shooting some mugs

Wells, like Napoleon, is a convict caught up in this because of bad decisions his keepers made. Ironically, Wells is a bit at fault for demanding the bus stop to find aid for black lung guy sitting beside him. Later, he wants to institute a plan called Save Ass, in which he runs away “like a bastard.”

He sticks it out, and, thanks to his bad luck, is tasked with hot-wiring a car in the parking lot after sneaking through the sewer. Wells succeeds and drives to the nearest pay phone, but his trip is cut short by the Blood Brother hiding in the back seat, waiting for someone to try that.

Henchmen (1/8)

The Blood Brothers barely speak. Their henchmen are barely seen. Carpenter’s horror skills come into play. During the assault on the station, the bad guys are filmed from the perspective of the good guys.

Dozens of gangsters surround the station. They creep silently through dull streetlamp light, hiding in shrubs and behind cars. Many carry weapons such as crowbars, table legs, and hammers. They spoil for a fight and will not stop until they or their opponents are dead.

zombie-like killers
zombie-like killers

Night of the Living Dead is a clear inspiration here. Swap the gangsters for zombies and the station for a church and you have a remake of the Romero classic. These zombies, however, run, and some of them have guns.

We never hear them speak nor glance their faces, but these henchmen frighten through sheer numbers. In the climax, they crowd the basement hallway, hacking at Napoleon and Bishop until they are charred bodies.

Stunts (0/6)

A movie with a $100,000 budget has neither the time nor the money to spend on huge fights and car chases. The Blood Brothers drive a car at languid speed, as if the director couldn’t afford to damage the car.

In the climax, the bad guys breach the basement and hack at the sign the heroes use to protect them. Two men are pushed back by guys wielding crowbars and makeshift clubs, the opposite of the famous scene in Old Boy in which the outnumbered hero does all the damage.

Climax (4/6)

After the Blood Brothers shoot up the station and try to invade through the windows and doors, they retreat in order to regroup. The heroes take stock. Bishop, Leigh, Wells, and Napoleon are still alive. They have four guns but a combined eight bullets left. They have killed many, but more will come.

They know they won’t survive another attack. Someone eyes a car in the parking lot beside the station. If someone could hot wire it, that person could save the day. Leigh informs them that the station has a basement that connects to the sewer, which comes out on the asphalt a few yards from the car.

Bishop and Leigh don’t know how to car jack, so they leave it to the criminals. Wells is upset. He refuses to flip a coin with Napoleon because he’s had back luck his whole life. They play a hand game called Potatoes, a rhyming and counting game that I didn’t understand. I didn’t need to. Wells lost.

From a window they watch Wells climb slowly from the sewer hole cover. He crawls to the car. The bad guys spot him and walk menacingly toward him. Wells enters the car, hot wires it, and speeds away. All are hopeful.

As Wells stops by the nearest phone booth, one of the Blood Brothers pops up in the back seat. The car was bait. Wells bit it. Then he Bit It. Bishop, ever the optimist, thinks the sound of gunfire was just glass breaking. Sure, Bishop. Suuuuure.

Now the bad guys know of another entrance to the station. The remaining three descend to the basement. Bishop has a plan. After the first attack, he discovered a crate with a canister of a gas that, had it been shot, might have exploded the station. Bishop takes this canister with them. He brings a bag of flares and ties it to gas can.

The three good guys, together with the blanket-wrapped dad who hasn’t spoken a word during the entire siege, wait in the furnace room in the basement. Bishop ties the flare and gas can high in the opposite end of the concrete hallway.

Their plan is simple. Leigh covers the sewer entrance and shoots whoever comes in there. Napoleon and Bishop use a sign (which says “Support Your Local Police” on it) and a rolling dolly as protection. When the bad guys come down the stairs, Napoleon and Bishop roll the dolly backward down the corridor until they join Leigh and the useless dad in the furnace room. Bishop uses his three shots to hit the flares, ignite the gas, and burn everyone on the other side of the sign.

As they wait for the final assault, Bishop whistles. They hear the tinkling of molotov cocktails landing on the floor. More bad guys stream into the ground floor. Leigh wastes the few who creep through the sewer. This gap is narrow enough that if she killed three or four, their bodies would block others.

The goons find the basement entrance and stream down it. The camera is placed on the bad guys’ side, looking over the sign’s edge at Bishop and Napoleon. The heroes slowly back up the sign as the opponents swing blunt weapons at each other over the top. Had they guns, the heroes wold have died in seconds.

Smoke fills the corridor, obscuring Bishop’s shot. His first two shots miss. It’s impossible to see the flares, but Bishop knows where they are. The final shot strikes and ignites. A fireball engulfs the corridor.

Now, finally, backup arrives. Cops walk through the charred corridor over blackened bodies. The floor can barely be glimpsed beneath the dead. Smoke thickens the air. The cops approach the doorway to the furnace room. The smoke clears to reveal the three survivors clutching empty guns, ready to use them as clubs.

Smoke clearing on the 3 heroes ready to hit people.
Smoke clearing on the 3 heroes ready to hit people.

“Anybody got a smoke?” Napoleon asks. They made their own smokes.

Ah, what a finale. The camera work was impressive, and the Support Your Local Police sign a sly joke, especially for a convicted murderer to hold. Few bullets were fired, making the final explosion a moment to make you say WOW.

Jokes (2/4)

Assault is a visual treat and, at 91 minutes, too short to delve into character. Still, Carpenter succeeds in crafting distinct characters. Napoleon Wilson, convicted murderer, is the funniest character. His repeated desire for a cigarette lends levity to the situation.

Funny moments are present. Local police are depicted as lazy, foolish, or both. A cop drives a squad car around town to cover reports of fireworks or possible gunfire. Finding nothing, the driver refuses to check out the about-to-be-shut station for Precinct 13. His partner, riding shotgun, Has a Bad Feeling about it.

There’s a missing phone truck and reports of possible gunfire in a terrible neighborhood, and the cop is like, “Meh, whatever. It’s probably nothing.” Not until blood drips on his car hood does he decide something’s wrong.

Backup is swift to arrive at Precinct 13, but not until after the heroes barbecue dozens of gangsters.

Setting (4/4)

Filmed on a $100,000 budget, Assault didn’t have many locations to choose. Most of the action occurs in and around the precinct station, shot on a California lot. The camera and characters are forced to explore every room. We want to know where the characters are each moment, so we can understand if they’ve forgotten to cover an entrance.

The station has an upstairs that is unused and never seen. The double front doors swing open, and don’t seem to have even a latch, much less a lock, on them. Bishop and Wells both stand there and look out the window and, amazingly, are not shot.

There’s a back entrance that is barricaded, and it leads to a hall along the cells and through a door into the main lobby. Two other rooms connect to the lobby. Every painted surface is beige. You could draw a map of the facility and understand where people are all the time.

The police station is in its final day of functionality, so boxes and crates are everywhere. More beige. Even Bishop’s uniform is beige. My guess is that the producers thought red blood packets would pop on beige, and they certainly do.

Because the confines are so tight, the characters spend much time and dialogue sorting out who will go where. The audience thinks about tactics as the characters do. Bishop places the people most of the time. Leigh guards the back and Wells the front, while Napoleon and Bishop shoot the hell out of guys trying to climb into the side rooms. The camera is in many places, but always inside that lobby and adjoining rooms. The geography is easy to decipher.

Outside the station, in the great big world, are vacant lots and decrepit buildings. The LA area in the 1970s appears to be a bright, sunny, hell hole. The land appears empty enough that cars could drive where they please, avoiding roads, and arrive faster.

Commentary (0/2)

Assault could have said a lot about the declining inner cities America endured during the White Flight period of the ’60s and ’70s. Carpenter avoids such commentary. This movie is about bad guys swearing a blood oath to kill police. It’s not about tax policies or racism or police brutality or Robin Hood small time crooks. Very Bad Guys try to kill Good People.

Carpenter focuses on the besieged characters. Napoleon is calm and wants a smoke. He lives for the violence. Consider his grin after Bishop tosses him a shotgun. Leigh is calmer and straight-faced. Her version of a grin is a raised eyebrow and an uptick in one corner of her lips. Bishop trusts the good luck that befalls good people. He believes that the bereaved dad deserves protection, even at the cost of his own life.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

A radio newscaster in the film comments on the unusual diverse nature of the Street Thunder gang that besieges the station. A Hispanic man, a white man, and two black men are the gang leaders who swear the blood oath.

Not mentioned is the diverse cast of heroes. Bishop is a black man, as is the prisoner Wells, Leigh a white woman, and Napoleon a white man. These ethnic makeups closely resemble that of Los Angeles.

I have waited this long to discuss the most shocking scene of the film, perhaps of all films in the 1970s: the murder of the girl.

Carpenter brilliantly sets up this moment. The ice cream truck driver spots the Blood Brothers’ car and knows something’s up. The car slowly drives by the truck one, two, three times. As soon as he believes he’s in the clear, the four gang leaders are out of the car and beside the truck.

Dad, can I have ice cream. I NEED IT.
Dad, can I have ice cream. I NEED IT.

Meanwhile, the dad has stopped at a pay phone to call someone. His daughter hears the ice cream truck’s siren song, and of course demands ice cream. She asks dad for money and he obliges. The girl approaches the truck (before the Blood Brothers have gotten out).

Girl: Can I get an ice cream? Man: Sweetheart, I’m closed. The man cuts off the music. She orders a vanilla twist and walks away.

Ordering a vanilla twist
Ordering a vanilla twist

The girl retreats to her dad down the road. She realizes that the ice cream man gave her regular vanilla. Regular God damn vanilla. Kids sure are picky. At this point, the ice cream man has a gun in his mouth.

You picked the wrong day to give out the wrong kind of vanilla ice cream.
You picked the wrong day to give out the wrong kind of vanilla ice cream.

Now, we worry that the ice cream man will die and the girl will see it and she will scream. Her dad might die. What happens is the last thing we expect.

The gun holder in the above photo pistol whips the ice cream man, sparing his life. The girl stands on the opposite side of the truck. “I wanted vanilla twist,” she says with a smile on her face.

The pistol guy turns to face her, and shoots her in the chest. Blood sprays across her dress. Then he plugs two bullets in the ice cream man and walks away.

This girl is shot dead.
This girl is shot dead.

Not only is the girl murdered over some ice cream, the actor is covered in blood. The dad sees her dead body and it drives him insane. He takes the ice cream man’s gun and tracks the killers, avenging his daughter my killing her killer.

Others

  • (2) The girl’s murder took my breath away. I knew someone would die in that scene, but who died and how occurred in the way I suspected least. I never once thought the girl would die, at least not in that manner.
  • (1) Napoleon never lets go of the shotgun until it’s out of bullets.
  • (1) Carpenter did the score and it’s dope. Synth beats for the bad guys and soft keyboard notes for the tender scenes in which no one is getting killed.

Summary (39/68): 57%

Punching far above its weight, Assualt on Precinct 13 is a tight action thriller. Shot on an economy budget, John Carpenter’s movie excels in crafting the characters under siege in a local police station. Characters don’t simply act in this movie, they explain their actions and the reasons for them. They set up traps and guard entrances, telling the audience why.

Once the action shifts to the station, it stays there. The camera shows the bad guys from the perspective of the good guys, further investing the audience in the plight of the heroes.

Assault trims the fat of gluttonous action films, leaving the lean meat for better digestion. Watching it, the audience is well satisfied.