Review Date: July 19, 2002
Released by: Image
Release date: 3/11/2003
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
When people ask me what my favorite film is, I always say the same thing: Assault on Precinct 13
. "Huh?" Is the response I always get, but as soon as I tell them it is from the director of Halloween
everybody seems to know. It shouldn't be this way. John Carpenter's first official film, known now as Assault
but was originally released as The Siege
, is every bit as good as Halloween
, and then some. Although John Carpenter has been stuck in the horror genre for most of his career, his fundamental passion lies with the western films of the past, and because of such, Assault on Precinct 13
is undoubtedly his most personal and passionate work, and it will likely remain that way for the rest of his career. Released by Image on DVD in the early days of the format, the transfer was far from commendable. Newly restored and full of new extras, this new disc has the potential to give this film the respect it deserves. Load your weapons, let's assault this new disc.
In Anderson, California, a Los Angeles ghetto, six youth gang members are brutally shot down in a shakedown by the police. The surviving members of the interracial gang, named Street Thunder, vow to avenge their members' deaths...at all costs. They prowl the streets, searching for a chance to pay back the police for providing them with this criminal injustice. Also on the streets are a man and his daughter on the way to see the little girl's grandmother. They stop momentarily for an ice cream, and the little girl and the ice cream vendor are ruthlessly shot down without motive by the leader of Street Thunder. Dismayed and in shock, the father chases down and eventually kills Street Thunder's leader. Lawson (Martin West), the father, runs from the rest of the group, and seeks shelter in the nearest police station on Precinct 9 (not 13, as the title falsely states).
Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) also winds up at the precinct earlier on in the day, being appointed to help them with the move out. The station is shutting down, and Stoker, looking for action on his first day in the force, is unwillingly assigned to the dull and eventless police station. The station gets livelier, however, when Special Officer Starker (Carpenter veteran Charles Cyphers) orders a bus holding three dangerous criminals to stop at the aforementioned station. One of the prisoners is sick and possibly infectious, so they place him, along with Wells (Tony Burton) and famed criminal, Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) in a holding tank in the station. The night escalates into one of sheer terror though, when Lawson shows up at the abandoned precinct unable to talk and seeking refuge.
Following Lawson there was the gang Street Thunder, armed with limitless amounts of stolen guns and ammunition. They inform the police station of their "Cholo", which means they do not care whether they live or die, just as long as they take vengeance for the murder of their gang members. The police; Bishop, Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and Julie (Nancy Loomis) must now band together with the prisoners, Wilson and Wells in order to keep the gang from penetrating the police station. But with a limited artillery and no outside communication, the group will have to work together and use their heads in order to come out alive.
Assault on Precinct 13
is arguably one of the best action films ever made. Every element of the finished product is of reference quality, and with Assault John Carpenter has demonstrated that even at a young age he still possessed a knack for creating entertainment. The film gets the ball rolling right from the opening credits with his pulse pounding synthesizer score, and the pace never really lets up. The mood setting credits also cleverly enlighten the viewer of the film's subject matter with John Carpenter's editing pseudonym, John T. Chance. Chance was John Wayne's character in Hawks' Rio Bravo
and Assault on Precinct 13 is a modern retelling of the time-tested tale.
Like Wayne's famous anti-hero characters of the past, Napoleon Wilson is witty, bitter and epitomizes suavity. He speaks almost entirely in one-liners, and the delivery of his dialogue is met with smirks and a glint to his eye. Right from his memorable, reoccurring first line "Got a smoke?" Joston's performance as the lead anti-hero is laced with a constant sense of cool. It is as if Napoleon Wilson has spent his years in prison thinking of sharp, witty comments. Forget Snake Plissken or Jack Burton, Napoleon Wilson is Carpenter's definitive bad boy. No matter how tense the events in the film, Wilson always remains debonair and cool, and the late Darwin Joston's performance is spot on and entirely memorable. It is a shame Joston died so young, because he had a screen presence unlike any other.
As good as Joston handled his role, the true kudos must go to Carpenter's polished screenplay. The entire screenplay feels like one huge homage to every great western line ever spoken on film. All the characters in the station have a likeable personality, and they all seem like true people. Stoker's performance is honest and worldly; Loomis' projects vulnerability and fear; Joston's is all about cool; and Laurie Zimmer's performance as Leigh is equally as suave as Joston's. She provides a perfect star-crossed companion to Napoleon Wilson, and her strength is one few women in the 1970's were ever able to demonstrate. Not only are all the characters memorable, but their interaction amongst one another mix like bread and butter.
The characters inside the station are fascinating and identifiable, and they are perfectly contrasted by the lurking, emotionless gang members. The Street Thunder members charge the station without fear or without care. They are treated not as humans, but as an unstoppable embodiment of evil that has become a central character to almost all of John Carpenter's subsequent films. As much as the film can be considered a remake of Rio Bravo
, it also owes its debts to Romero's Night of the Living Dead
, as all of the gang members are projected as a zombie-like whole. Also like Night is the plot about characters from different backgrounds and social classes coming together to fend off evil. Like the zombies, the gang members keep coming in this film, and their continual attacks on the station intensify the film's conflict.
John Carpenter has publicly stated his love for western films, and his discontent with their falling out in the 1970's is subtly stated. In Assault one of the policemen on the radio says "there are no heroes anymore, only men who follow orders", which can be taken as a statement about the post-Western film status. No longer were their larger than life characters like the ones John Wayne had made so famous decades previously. Instead, films were about real people, ones who were vulnerable and who had fears like everyone else. No longer in the 1970's were there true western heroes, but with Napoleon Wilson John Carpenter has clearly tried to make a character in the same vein as John Wayne's past characterizations. And the statement in the film about heroes no longer being around is one I am sure John Carpenter cared very much about.
Ironically, Carpenter also projected himself through some of the dialogue in the film, most notably in a statement by Napoleon Wilson. Wilson states, "it's an old story about me, I was born out of time", and this quote could easily be said about Carpenter. With a love for old-fashioned filmmaking, John Carpenter has many times throughout his career found his pictures "out of time" with his respective audiences. The Thing was ahead of its time, and The Fog
was a ghost story with the class of a 50's production. Carpenter has been quoted as saying that he wishes he was making films in the good ol' days of black and white, because they are very much the kind of films he makes. Had Carpenter been raised in the 40's and 50's, there is a distinct possibility he would have become a prolific western filmmaker, rather than the master of fright that he has become. But still, the majority of his pictures are misunderstood by modern audiences, proving that indeed Carpenter is a man "born out of time".
Assault on Precinct 13
is the perfect western. It has got all of the qualities that make the genre so memorable: a witty screenplay, a larger-than-life anti-hero, the strong bodied woman, ruthless villains and, most importantly, never-ending excitement. Although a remake of Rio Bravo
, this movie definitely holds its own today, which is undoubtedly why it itself has been remade as both From Dusk Till Dawn
and Ghosts of Mars
. This is a film that gets better only with subsequent viewings, and one that I can honestly recommend to any filmgoer. This is John Carpenter's finest hour.
The biggest improvement over the old transfer can be read right on the box: anamorphic. Unlike the original release, this new disc features an anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen transfer. How much better is the transfer though?
The original transfer had artifacting problems, looked very washed out and suffered direly during the dark scenes. Some scenes were so dark and grainy that it was tough to even differentiate just what was happening on screen (when Leigh is shot in the arm in particular). The new version has corrected many of these problems, and in a single word, the new transfer is amazing.
|New Image DVD||Old Image DVD|
Comparing the two in close scrutiny, it is obvious that the new print looks much sharper and the colors appear much more vivid. From the captures above, the original skin tones were over saturated, and the green leaves in the background looked less than fresh. In this new transfer though, the skin colors look much more lifelike, and the colors are much more vibrant and rich with detail. One will also notice how the newer version has much smoother edges, thus giving the picture an increased depth. The print is extremely sharp and thankfully does not suffer from edge enhancement.
As previously mentioned, a large portion of the film takes place at night, and the new print handles the black levels exceptionally well. Shadows and dark spaces look very strong, and the contrast leaves everything feeling deep and realistic. Although the single scene with Leigh getting shot still looks worse than the rest of the transfer, it is finally legible after all these years.
After having grown up on the VHS and original DVD editions of this film, it is eye opening to see it look so good. Image has put plenty of care into this transfer, and all their labor has paid off. Night and day is contrasted throughout Assault on Precinct 13
, and that same contrast can be applied to Image's releases of the film. You haven't seen Assault until you see it on this DVD.
Those looking for a new 5.1 track as jaw dropping as the image will sadly be disappointed. The single mono track from the first release is the only one on this disc, and it is just average. A the dialogue sounds a little flat, and there is no sense of envelopment at all. John Carpenter's music sounds crystal clear though, and that is no doubt due to the fact that Image has the entire isolated music track to work from (more on that in the supplement section). There is nothing really wrong with the track, it just seems like a bit of a missed opportunity though.
Porting over the extras from the original disc, as well as adding a few new ones, this DVD is a fan's dream. The biggest, and still best supplement is the original John Carpenter solo commentary from the Laserdisc. He is very vocal about the film and talks about shooting low budget films and gives some funny anecdotes about the film. Through his commentary we learn that the cast and crew once worked for more than 24 hours straight in order to keep the film on schedule. As all other JC commentaries, there is never a dull moment, and it always remains captivating. Definitely one of the best solo commentaries out there.
The bread and butter of this new release is the isolated musical score from the original Laserdisc. John Carpenter's score for Assault is one of the best scores ever, and it was great to finally be able to hear some of the lesser known segments without the intrusion of dialogue or sound effects. Synthesizer has never sounded so good, and it is a pity that this kind of extra isn't included on more of Carpenter's films.
The newly produced interview with John Carpenter and Austin Stoker at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood is the major new edition to this DVD, and it is definitely worth buying the disc over again. Time is spent interviewing both Carpenter and Stoker, and they both talk about several things Carpenter covered already in his commentary. There are some new bits though, and it is nice to see Carpenter in person. The 24 minute interview really gets interesting though, when the floor is opened up to the audience. Several keen observations and questions are mounted, some hilarious and many informative. The high point comes when somebody asks John Carpenter how exactly does someone win at the game of "potatoes" that Napoleon and Wells carry out in the film.
Listed on the back as a "Still Gallery", the little visual montage is quite substantial and much better than it should be. It runs just shy of 20 minutes, and chronicles the film from pre-production to release and finally to reception. There are some great storyboards, articles, reviews and pictures included in this little montage, and it really gives the film a thorough background. Promotional materials end off the montage, showing how the film was marketed to various outlets. The quality of this gallery is definitely a big surprise.
Rounding off the disc is the original theatrical trailer, that just may win the award for most print damage ever for a promotional item. Two short and cheesy radio spots are also included ("A white-hot night of hate!") for the completists like myself out there. The menus are also newly animated, but truth be told, they look pretty ugly. You can't judge a book by its cover though, and the resulting supplements on this disc are far better than any of the previous releases of Assault. John Carpenter fans are just going to eat this stuff up.
Assault on Precinct 13
is one of the best films ever made. A bold statement indeed, but John Carpenter's under seen labor of love is more than worthy of such praise. Featuring all around great performances and a tour de force by Carpenter with his stellar writing, directing, editing and scoring of the picture, this is a timeless classic. Image's new video restoration is leaps and bounds better than the original disc, and must be seen to be believed. The audio is the same as the first disc, but the supplements are full of all the good stuff, new and old, and more than make this disc worthy of purchase. If you already own the original disc, then drop it on eBay, because this is the one to get. I'll put out a blood oath to destroy anybody who doesn't pick up this sensational disc!
Movie - A
Image Quality - A
Sound - B-
Supplements - A
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Mono
- Commentary with John Carpenter
- Isolated music score
- Interview with John Carpenter and Austin Stoker
- Still gallery
- Theatrical trailer
- Radio spots