I originally got into watching exploitation films as a teenager because of how many films of this breed have fallen into the public domain. Defined by their low budgets and typically poor craftsmanship, exploitation films are more of a guilty pleasure than anything else. Because of this, I had low expectations for Assault on Precinct 13 even knowing that Carpenter was at the helm. Thankfully reality abolished my expectations wrong, as it is actually a very entertaining movie.
What Carpenter has done is make a $100,000 action movie that is more enjoyable than most films today that have budgets soaring over millions of dollars. The film plays out like a shoot ‘em up western set in 1970s South Central Los Angeles. After a gang murders a little girl in broad daylight, her father seeks revenge and kills one of the gang leaders. The father then quickly seeks shelter in a decommissioned police precinct. However, because the precinct is in its final hours of operation, it is inadequately staffed. As scores of gang members begin attacking the precinct, it is up to Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) and his small team, including two of the precinct’s detained criminals, to put an end to the gang’s madness.
The first thing that makes this film stand out from most other exploitation films is that it is fairly well acted. Now I’m not saying anyone here deserves an Academy Award, but it’s a lot less cheesy than it could have been primarily because of how the actors maintain a sense of cool. Darwin Joston in the role of one of the detained criminals is especially curious to watch, as he plays his ruffian character with the sort of pithy confidence that was more common in 1940s noir films.
I was also intrigued by how little information was provided about the villainous gang. While their motivations originally fall along the lines of revenge, this seems to be more of a minor objective. Their kamikaze-esque methods exemplify how the gang acts in accordance with a carefree and bloodthirsty mindset. Similar to the antagonists found in recent home invasion movies like The Purge and The Strangers, the gang here is as inhumane as it gets.
Because of aforementioned reasons, this is not a film for everyone. From the opening scene to the final minutes of the film, brutality runs rampant in this cult action thriller. The success of the film is a clear testament to Carpenter’s abilities; he was not only the film’s director but also the writer, editor, and composer. By unleashing unexplained terror into the ordinary world, Carpenter paints a picture of urban violence not too far off of what is currently happening in parts of the United States.