Or, to give it the full works, this is John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, and early example of a director’s name being included in the title of a film. If that sounds pretentious, it’s the direct opposite of what Assault on Precinct 13 is. This 1976 movie, shot for a low budget and featuring a cast you’ll struggle to recognise, is the template for every calling card debut, including Reservoir Dogs. Make it small, make it tough, make it fast and make it cheap; everybody wants to make a thriller like that, but only the very best can make the dough rise.
That’s not to say errors aren’t made. Carpenter regrets some of the most explosive content here, notably the death of a young girl (Escape to Witch Mountain’s Kim Richards) in the infamous ice-cream truck sequence. And of course, there’s no precinct 13 in this film, it’s precinct 9. But otherwise, it’s hard to fault that tactics used here, which influenced everything from The Terminator to Die Hard. Lt Bishop (Austin Stoker) gets a tough assignment; holding things down at a soon-to-close police station in a desolate LA province. Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) is amongst the crime in the holding pen, and proves something of an asset when a heavily armed gang named Street Thunder attempt to invade the heavily embedded police station.
Is there a cooler character in 70’s cinema that Napoleon Wilson? He gets the girls, he kills the baddies, and in terms of ‘he acts like he doesn’t care but he does’, Wilson makes Han Solo look positively indecisive. His catchphrase “Gotta smoke?’ recalls the Hawksian inspiration for Assault, and many of Carpenter’s other films too, but you don’t need to know your Westerns to dig this film; even the female characters (Nancy Loomis, Laurie Zimmer) are well-drawn. The baddies, however, are largely kept off screen; this film has a siege mentality, and fits in that file alongside Zulu and Aliens.
Written, edited and directed by Carpenter, this would already be a tour de force, but the music score takes things to another level. The ideal accompaniment for the brooding urban visuals, the rise and fall of the synth score expresses far more than might be expected; the tension as the station is gradually overrun is perfectly captured. The 2005 remake, in retrospect, isn’t a bad film at all, but there’s no chance of capturing the street-tough magic of this hard-as–nails genre classic.
On Amazon Prime in the UK.