Updated: Jul 28, 2020
After his offbeat, quirky feature debut, the sci-fi comedy Dark Star (1974), John Carpenter's second film, Assault on Precinct 13, made in 1976, immediately established the director as a genre stylist, with an acute understanding of pacing, the use of the widescreen and building suspense through dialogue, atmosphere, music score and camera movement.
The basic plot of the film revolves around an unlikely partnership between a Highway Patrol Officer, two criminals, and a station secretary that is formed in adversity in an abandoned, defunct precinct office in South Central LA, against a siege by a bloodthirsty street gang. In the brilliant pre-credits sequence the roots of the siege are made clear: the nihilistic street punks want revenge for the brutal killing of members of their gang by prison guards. Soon after, this is compounded by the death of one of the gang when (in a shocking and superbly edited suspense sequence) they casually murder a young girl buying ice cream and her devastated father hunts down the killers, dispatching one before the gang proceeds to hunt him down mercilessly in return. Desperately seeking a means of escape and now in a catatonic state through grief, he eventually finds refuge in...Precinct 13!
What follows is a gripping and (unintentionally or otherwise) often blackly comic thriller with some of the best and most dynamically edited action scenes ever shot. Great lines abound, such as "Why would anybody shoot at a police station" or "Nobody said anything about the cholo!" have passed into cult movie folklore.
The famous editor credit - John T. Chance - was Carpenter's smart hommage to John Wayne's character, the sheriff in Howard Hawks' 1959 Western masterpiece Rio Bravo, a favourite film of Carpenter's.. Unlike the siege in that movie though, the isolation and dread that engulfs the tiny band of holdouts in the titular Precinct 13 feel a lot more terminal for all involved. In the face of the repeated onslaught of gangs of youths with a deathwish, we identify totally with the ice-cool Darwin Joston as enigmatic convict Napoleon Wilson and brave, resourceful traffic cop Ethan Bishop, played by Austin Stoker. Laurie Zimmer as surely the coolest secretary under pressure in any movie, adds sterling support.
Assault on Precinct 13 is now a cherished and established cult classic. It was remade (badly!) in 2005. To paraphrase the original's most famous line: why would anybody want to remake a cult masterpiece?