Assault on Precinct 13 (US - BD RA)
Gabe revisits Rio Bravo à la John Carpenter on Blu-ray collector's edition...
Isolated and cut off from the city inside a soon-to-be-closed L.A. police station, a group of police officers and convicts must join forces to defend themselves against the gang called Street Thunder, who have taken a blood oath to kill someone trapped inside of the precinct. (From Shout Factory’s official synopsis)
Assault on Precinct 13 wasn’t John Carpenter’s first feature film – that would be Dark Star (1974) – which was also an extension of a USC college film Carpenter made with future Alien screenwriter/ Return of the Living Dead director Dan O’Bannon. It’s a charming, often hilarious little experiment that bears more of O’Bannon’s future signatures than Carpenter’s (note that I do not mean this as a slight on the film’s quality). It established one very important thing, however – that Carpenter could do amazing things on a nothing budget. This brought him to the attention of B-Hollywood, who came calling and led him to make a rough and tumble siege movie called Assault on Precinct 13. So, if Dark Star is the first movie John Carpenter made, Assault on Precinct 13 is the first John Carpenter movie.
Though he is usually considered one of the ‘Masters of Horror,’ a group of young filmmakers that redefined low-budget American horror in the late ‘60s/‘70s (including George Romero, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, among others), but he has always had issues with the distinction, because Carpenter didn’t want to be the next Alfred Hitchcock or James Whale as much as he wanted to be the next Howard Hawks. Hawks’ films are unified by two things – their high quality and their diversity. Hawks had power over multiple genres, including gangster movies ( Scarface), film noir ( The Big Sleep), westerns ( Red River), sci-fi/horror ( The Thing From Another World), and screwball comedies ( His Girl Friday). For his part, Carpenter has also dabbled in non-horror films, including a bio-pic ( Elvis), a romantic, sci-fi adventure ( Starman), and a fantasy kung-fu flick ( Big Trouble in Little China). It’s certainly eclectic for a guy mostly known for making scary movies. Carpenter made his most direct homage to Hawks when he remade The Thing From Another World (1951) as The Thing (1982), but his first shot at the title was Assault on Precinct 13, which was a thematic remake of Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959).
Rio Bravo, a movie made partially in response to Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (pro-Blacklister John Wayne found it un-American in its anti-Blacklist sentiment), is, alongside Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), the quintessential ‘siege’ film. Elements of these two films have found their way into everything from Hitchcock’s The Birds, to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Cy Endfield’s Zulu. Hawks himself was fond enough of his creation to effectively recreate it two more times – first as El Dorado (1966), then as Rio Lobo (1970), his final feature. The siege concept lends itself to massive scale warfare, like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, but also lends itself to lower budget interpretations, making it popular fodder for action/adventure television as well (the Firefly episode Heart of Gold springs to mind). Assault on Precinct 13 began its life as more direct homage to Rio Bravo, but budgetary constraints made it difficult to shoot a western in 1976, so Carpenter relocated the story from the Wild West to South Central Los Angeles.
Assault on Precinct 13 doesn’t improve on Rio Bravo in too many ways, but Carpenter knew his limitations would become an asset if he cut all the fat from Hawks’ overstuffed template. Rio Bravo ends with iconic footage of the heroes defending the Presidio County jail house from bandits, but it takes almost two hours to set up the besetment. Carpenter streamlines the 141-minute runtime, whittling it down to an expeditious 91 minutes without losing any of its essential ingredients. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a similar movie from the ‘70s with more efficient editing than Assault on Precinct 13. In the process of consolidating the plot, Carpenter dehumanizes most of the villains. The gangs become mostly emotionless hordes, similar to Romero’s flesh eaters (like zombies, they barely even react when shot) and Hitchcock’s birds. Carpenter hadn’t quite mastered the art of slick, widescreen filmmaking by this time, but he was still able to get a whole lot of production value out of a paltry $150,000. The film carries all the visual hallmarks of a typical ’70s crime/action feature ten times its budget. Another thing that Carpenter gets right is the film’s sincere tone. He avoids what must’ve been a strong impulse to treat the material with the flippant sense of humour that it deserves. A less ambitious filmmaker would’ve recognized that there was little room for real drama in this tight exploitation riff and filled the space with ironic jokes and camp value. On the other hand, though more serious, a Hollywood production wouldn’t have had the balls to murder a child in slow motion before the close of its first act.
Carpenter’s patented tough-guy dialogue is entirely in line with a Hawks or Ford western and is rarely improved upon. Kurt Russell gets the best one-liners in Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China, but only The Thing beats Assault on Precinct 13 in sheer quantity of badass one-liners. Austin Stoker and Darwin Johnson, as stand-ins for the traditional sheriff and bandit characters, have the best exchanges, but everyone is let in on the action – even Laurie Zimmer, who may be the toughest chick in any of the director’s films. It’s probably important to note that Carpenter, a practically encyclopedic fan of Ford and Sergio Leone (he shows up on a lot of documentaries about other directors), never did manage to make a straight western. He did, however, find ways to blend genre tropes and imagery into the likes of Escape From New York, They Live, Vampires, and Ghosts of Mars (another version of Rio Bravo).
Like Halloween II, Shout Factory’s Assault on Precinct 13 disc has the rare distinction of already being released on Blu-ray in North America. Based on shared extras between the two versions and Shout’s tendency to reuse other company’s remastered transfers, I’m going to guess that the previous Blu-ray, from Image Entertainment was the source for this 1080p, 2.35:1 release. I don’t own a copy of that disc, so I’m not able to verify this with screencaps, but the possibility seems likely. The image has certainly been re-mastered since earlier DVD releases, including sharper foreground/close-up textures, better-defined background details, more dynamic contrast levels, and an overall cleanliness. The print has been scrubbed of most of the obvious print damage (there are fluttering artefacts peppered throughout), but not of natural grain. Aside from the occasional distortion created by the anamorphic lenses, edges are hard without shimmering effects or notable haloes. Without any DNR smudging or over-sharpening issues to complain about, the one thing that catches my eye is that the colour timing might be a bit off. The daylight sequences seem a bit too warm and yellow, while the teals/light blues of the nighttime sequences appear oversaturated. Generally speaking, browns, flesh tones, and red highlights look natural and are tightly separated. The darker shots are slightly muddy and cinematographer Douglas Knapp’s use of diffused light is a smidge fuzzy, I suppose, but there are only a couple of shots (during the scene where Laurie Zimmer frees the prisoners from their cells, specifically) where the grain turns particularly noisy and the blacks appear weak or grey.
This 5.1 remix of Assault on Precinct 13’s original mono soundtrack was first heard on Image’s restored DVD release, then appeared again on their aforementioned Blu-ray. Like most 5.1 remixes of mono soundtracks, it is unnecessary, but it’s still here and in DTS-HD Master Audio, so I’m gonna review it. Fortunately, this isn’t a particularly aggressive remix. The majority of the non-musical sound is still centered and the added directional value is relatively natural. In fact, aside from the gun bursts (the unsilenced shots are a little over-bassy and the silenced shots are a little over-modulated/digital sounding) and one big explosion, I believe the remix utilizes mostly original effects – there’s no Halloween re-release canned thunder here. The movement between stereo and surround channels is limited to cars moving through shot or off-screen gunshots and it works pretty well without overwhelming the intent of the original sound design. I will also admit that Carpenter’s vastly underrated electronic score (this and Escape From New York are my two favourites of his themes) sounds incredible on the 5.1 track. The stereo spread is nice and deep and the LFE enhancement is very effective. The element that puts Shout’s disc over the Image disc (besides the new extras I’m going to get to in a moment) is that the original mono track is also included in lossless DTS-HD MA, though it is significantly quieter than its 5.1 counterpart. The disc also includes a Dolby Digital 2.0 isolated score track.
The extras begin with two audio commentaries. The first features Carpenter solo and has been heard on several previous DVD and Blu-ray releases. Carpenter is his usual informative self. He’s characteristically honest and occasionally a bit self-deprecating while he runs through just about every piece of behind-the-scenes information he can remember. His comments remain mostly scene-specific, which can be a little awkward when he runs out of stuff to say about a certain sequence, but helps him flow between the silent bits (of which there are plenty). The only real issue is that this track is missing some of the personality of some of Carpenter’s shared commentaries. The second commentary is a brand new one with art director and sound effects editor Tommy Lee Wallace, moderated by Red Shirt Picture’s Michael Felsher. Flesher interviews with rather broad, but vital questions to keep the discussion going and, for his part, the soft-spoken Wallace is full of anecdotes and technical tidbits. Subject matter includes Wallace’s history with Carpenter, which began at USC with Dan O’Bannon, along with the difficulty of crafting such a good-looking film on a nothing budget. There’s not a whole lot of overlap with the first track, but Wallace does repeat himself every once in a while.
The special features also include:
- Bishop Under Siege (7:50, HD) – The first of two new interviews featuring actor Austin Stoker discussing his early theater work, his work on Assault on Precinct 13, his ease with firearms/action following time in the army, his fellow actors, and the film’s popularity.
- The Sassy One (12:40, HD) – The second new interview features actress Nancy Loomis Kyes, who also talks about her early career, meeting Wallace and Carpenter at USC, getting the job on Assault on Precinct 13, her additional work as a wardrobe mistress and set designer, and her continuing collaboration with Carpenter on Halloween, The Fog, and Halloween III.
- Interview with John Carpenter and Austin Stoker (23:10, SD) – This Q&A from a 2002 screening is a hold-over from the older Image releases and features a lot of overlap with the commentary and Stoker’s new interview.
- Radio Spots
- Still Gallery
Assault on Precinct 13 remains a thoroughly intense experience, despite its age and a half-decent remake stealing some of its thunder over the years. I regret not having revisited it for quite some time (probably more than a decade) and a, very happy that Shout Factory’s new release has finally forced my hand. This release features a very filmic transfer that isn’t overwhelmed by digital tinkering (the colour timing is a smidge unnatural), 5.1 and original mono soundtracks (both in DTS-HD audio), and a decent collection of old and new special features.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking the individual images, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 19th November 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 Mono English
Extras: Director Commentary, Art Director/Sound Effects Editor Commentary, Bishop Under Siege, The Sassy One, Director and Actor Q&A, Trailer, Radio Spots, Still Gallery
Easter Egg: No
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Nancy Kyes
Genre: Action, Crime and Thriller
Length: 91 minutes
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