Heavily influenced by Howard Hawks’s westerns, particularly Rio Bravo, Assault on Precinct 13 involves exactly what the title suggests. As the story opens, newly promoted Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is ordered to oversee the Anderson Police Precinct in the Anderson ghetto of Los Angeles for the night. The station has been moved and only a handful of staff remain at the Anderson Station to shut it down.
Meanwhile, we see two other subplots unfold. First, a group of prisoners, including multiple-murderer Napoleon Wilson, are being transported from one prison to another so he can wait on death row. One of the three prisoners becomes sick and their bus stops at the Anderson Station.
A siege begins, with the gang cutting off the power and phones to the Anderson Station and periodically trying to rush the building. It is a hopeless fight the defenders must win, though they are short on ammunition and people.
Why This Film Works
This is such a fascinating film to me on many levels. For example, on a purely technical level, this film is awful. Much of the writing is stilted and ridiculous. The actors are often wooden. The action is poorly staged. The plot is far-fetched. And so on. Yet, this is a really good film.
What works here are the “buts” to each of the complaints I just listed. The visual style is muddy and pedestrian and the action is poorly staged, but it makes the film feel honest in a way that smoother choreography and artistic shots of doves flying through windows as the heroes draw their guns in slow motion simply cannot provide. The actors are often wooden, but at other times they are brilliant. Co-leads Austin Stoker and Darwin Joston in particular provide some very subtle, excellently done moments that say so much more than the dialog conveys. A good example of this is how Joston, who goes through the whole film asking for cigarettes, conveys subtle shock when Stoker becomes the first cop to apologize for not being able to provide a cigarette. His shock at being treated with respect tells us reams about Stoker’s character as a genuinely good guy.
Convict: “Aren’t you going to wish me good luck?”But much of it is rather clever and much of it is funny. Joston in particular tells good stories throughout and he has some witty lines, such as when the woman who falls for him asks what to do with her final bullets:
Cops: “Good luck.”
Convict: “Two cops wishing me good luck? Now I know I’m doomed.”
Leigh: “I have two shots left. Should I save them for us?”
Joston: “Save ‘em for the first two assholes that come through that vent.”
Leigh: “What do I use on the rest of them?”
Joston: “Then you have to wing it.”
Conservative? Oh Yeah!
For those who haven’t followed Carpenter’s career, there is a definite liberal bent, particularly as it relates to the issue of feminism. This came in large part from his producer Debra Hill, but Carpenter ran with it voluntarily. He’s also done some anti-Reagan work, some pro-environmental work and he’s done some bizarre smears against religious conservatives. So one would assume that his film about a multiracial gang arising in the ghettos of Los Angeles would tread heavily into liberalism and liberation theology. Interestingly, however, it doesn’t. Instead, it presents full-on conservatism. Observe...
What’s more, compare the gang to what is going on inside the station. Bishop is black and he too came from Anderson. Liberation Theology says that such people must be on the side of the revolution, only Anderson is presented as firmly pro-law and order. He is even shown to believe in heroism, another thing the left was trying to eliminate. What’s more, the police side is a multiracial group who mix freely, never judge each other on the basis of race, and let a black man lead the group. These are all things leftists tell us cannot exist in the real world.
Further, the gang appears to be leftists. Yet, they are interestingly shown to be vicious and without any noble principles. They kill blacks, as well as whites. They kill a little girl for no reason at all. Their first killing is an ice cream truck driver, i.e. a working man. At the police station they kill cop and crook indiscriminately even though liberals would tell us that the crooks are only locked up because the police are an occupying army used by the privileged elite to keep order.
Finally, Napoleon Wilson becomes a hero in this film, but there is no suggestion that his crimes should be forgiven just because he proves to be a good guy. Nor does he ever disclaim his own actions or their significance. In fact, he doesn’t even bother to explain them even as people ask: the message to that is that intent doesn’t matter, only the act matters. That’s highly conservative.
It’s interesting to me that a leftist director could create a film that is perfectly set up to be very liberal, but ends up being strongly conservative in values.