Blu-ray Review – Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Remember a time when John Carpenter used to be cool? And I’m not talking in some ironic, kitschy sort of way; I mean really, totally, unbelievably cool. Even though the filmmaker hasn’t really come up with the goods in a feature film in some time (I’ll give him partial credit for “Cigarette Burns,” his first season episode on “Masters of Horror”), there was a time when Carpenter’s name above the title meant that you just knew you were going to be getting something completely cool. And his 1976 action film “Assault on Precinct 13″ could be considered the start of the Carpenter coolness.
It’s the final days for Precinct 13. The police station is shutting down, the phones are shut off, and there is only a skeleton crew at the station for the final night. Of course, things don’t stay quiet for long as a perfect storm of events is getting ready to converge on the people at the station. Gang activity is at a high in this neighborhood, and a young girl is killed during gang violence. Her father goes vigilante, shooting the man who killed his daughter. This does’t sit well with the other members of the gang, who want revenge for their fallen comrade.
The father seeks shelter at Precinct 13, and the gang members make a blood pact to get their target inside at whatever cost. So, it’s up to just a few station employees and the prisoners who happened to stop at the station during transit to hold down the fort until the cavalry arrives.
If this all sounds like a modern-day Western, that’s because that’s basically exactly what it is. Carpenter has said that “Assault” was inspired by the John Wayne film “Rio Bravo.” But it’s in this early Carpenter film that we see a lot of what would become hallmarks of his work. There’s an anti-hero in Napoleon Wilson, an inmate who now must fight beside the law to stay alive. There’s the driving synth score composed by Carpenter himself. There’s the sense of claustrophobic dread that would show up in films like “Halloween” and “The Thing.” And of course, there’s action, lots of action.
Now this isn’t your modern-day action flick. Things are very much set in the real world. Don’t expect to see any of our characters outrun a fire ball or anything as dramatic as that. But the grounding in reality makes everything all the more tense and real. It’s more suspenseful watching this motley crew trying to figure out how they are going to survive this mess when you know there isn’t going to be any over-the-top heroics or pyrotechnics.
Just because it’s not completely over the top doesn’t mean that there isn’t a good amount of action, though. Many gunshots are fired, much glass is broken and many gang members are slain. And the low budget of the film gives these scenes a more gritty realism that would probably be lost had the film had a more fine sheen.
And while we’re talking about the look of the film, let’s take a look at this Blu-ray. This presentation is probably the best that many people will have ever seen of this movie. The HD picture brings a great deal of extra visual clarity, but the transfer does well to not whitewash over details to make “Assault on Precinct 13″ look more digital or more “high definition.” This is a film, after all. It should have some grain to it, and this transfer retains that look.
Don’t go expecting this to be a reference-quality disc; it’s not meant to be. This isn’t a glossy Hollywood flick, like the remake. It’s a low-budget film from the ’70s. And thankfully, it looks like it. This was a very effective restoration.
As far as audio goes, you’ve got the choice between the original mono or a new 5.1 surround mix. Purists will be pleased at the inclusion of the mono mix and others will be happy to get a greater sense of separation with the audio. To be honest, the audio is effective, no real problems, and either audio track would be a safe bet. The music, always so critical in any Carpenter film, can get a bit overpowering sometimes, but it’s a minor quibble, one that doesn’t ever prevent being able to hear dialogue.
As for the extras, there are some interesting nuggets to be taken away. There’s an interview with John Carpenter and Austin Stoker (the lone policeman at the precinct in the movie) at a fan convention. There are some great comments, but it really looks like something someone from the crowd recorded and eventually gave to someone. It doesn’t look great, but it gets the job done. There’s also an audio commentary with John Carpenter, no real surprise there. Carpenter is a director known to consistently do audio commentaries for his films. He does a pretty good job here. There’s a lot of information about the film, even though I think he sometimes is guilty of narrating what’s on screen.
Other features include an audio commentary with Art Director & Sound Effects Editor Tommy Lee Wallace, interview with actress Nancy Loomis Kyes, interview with actor Austin Stoker, radio spots, and the original theatrical trailer.
It’s a Wrap!
The video quality alone is reason enough to upgrade this title to Blu-ray. The restoration is top notch and preserves a very film-like appearance. The extras are solid for this early Carpenter effort, but “Assault on Precinct 13″ doesn’t really need lots of fancy bells and whistles. It really is a white-knuckle action flick that set the stage for the coolness that would follow Carpenter. Now if only we could get another good action script in Carpenter’s hands …
Film: 4 out of 5
Audio/Video: 4 out of 5
Extras: 3.5 out of 5
Editors’s note: This Blu-ray review was originally written for the Blue Underground Blu-ray release but has been updated to look at the improved Shout Factory edition.