More noise than signal

Assault on Precinct 13

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Austin Stoker’s California Highway Patrol officer Lt. Ethan Bishop’s day gets increasingly problematic, from a seemingly easy starting point. He’s asked to oversee the final day’s activities of closing down an old police precinct building that’s moving elsewhere, from its current anti-salubrious environs of a rough L.A. ghetto. It has a skeleton staff, a desk sergeant and two administrators, Laurie Zimmer’s Leigh and Nancy Loomis’ Julie but- spoilers – staffing levels are about to be further reduced.

Meanwhile, a prison transfer bus has to make an emergency pit stop when an inmate falls ill, bringing Darwin Joston’s enigmatic convicted murderer Napoleon Wilson and fellow neerdowell Tony Burton’s Wells to the party, along with some other characters we shouldn’t get too attached to.

Furtherly meanwhile, in the aftermath of a police action that saw six gang members gunned down, said gangs are out for blood, seemingly at random picking an ice cream van chappie and, as part of an extreme “no witnesses” policy, the young girl he was serving. Her distraught father gives chase and manages to take out his daughter’s killer, but the numbers are not in his favour and he flees, shellshocked, to the precinct, pursued by an embarrassment of gangsters, intent on getting him, and anyone that gets in the way.

The shock of the first wave of attacks is repelled, but at the cost of, well, everyone not named previously, so the cops and the criminals must band together to survive until helps arrives – if indeed it will, with the communications and electricity cut.

That’s more or less your lot, which is normally the point where I’d say it doesn’t seem like a a lot to hang a film from. And, well, it’s not, I suppose, but for once that’s a positive rather than a negative. It’s simplicity turns out to be its strength, allowing time to focus on the tension and characters.

It’s the interplay between Stoker and Joston that sell the film, in particular the hints at unravelling what’s going on with Napoleon Wilson. For all his tough guy quips and demeanour, he’s no crazed killer. Even if the script is hanging multiple lightshades on it, it’s still one of the brightest light in the movie.

It helps that that Carpenter boy knows how to shoot a shoot-out, with the back half of the movie in particular being a great combination of ratcheted tension and kinetic release. It goes without saying that this holds up very well today and is at least in the running for being Carpenter’s best film.