Long before director John Carpenter became a household name with his cult-classic genre offerings "Halloween", "Escape from New York", and "Big Trouble in Little China", he made a name for himself in with a low-budget 1976 action film named "Assault on Precinct 13". Shot on a shoestring budget of $100,000 and populated by mostly amateur actors, "Assault on Precinct 13" was intended to be a quick-and-dirty exploitation flick that would cash in on the popularity of urban action films and the blaxploitation genre. However, with Carpenter's eye for action and talent for creating suspense, "Assault on Precinct 13" ended up being a claustrophobic blend of "Rio Bravo" and "Night of the Living Dead". In addition to helping launch the Hollywood career of the 28-year old writer/director, the film has created quite a loyal following over the years, which counts director Quentin Tarantino ("Jackie Brown") among its fans.
The story revolves around rookie police officer Bishop (Austin Stoker of the "Planet of the Apes" franchise), whose first assignment is to baby-sit Station 13 in Precinct 9, a police station in the run-down Anderson district of Los Angeles that is about to be permanently shutdown. When he arrives, he finds a skeleton crew of two secretaries on hand, Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and Julie (Nancy Loomis), and most of the precinct's equipment either already moved or packed away.
Not long after Bishop settles in, a few unexpected guests start dropping by. A busload of three death-row inmates, in the middle of a prisoner transfer, makes an emergency stop after one of the prisoners falls ill and is in need of a doctor. Among the trio of convicts is Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), an aloof yet outspoken convicted murderer who's dying for a smoke. However, these three prisoners become the least of Bishop's worries when a man named Lawson (Martin West) runs into the precinct, seeking refuge from a street gang, and all hell breaks loose.
Pretty soon, the entire precinct is surrounded by legions of well-armed gang members. Like "Night of the Living Dead", the gangs throw their superior numbers against every possible way into the precinct, crawling through windows and bashing down doors. Out-manned and outgunned, Bishop reluctantly sets his prisoners free so that they can help in dealing with the onslaught. Though Bishop and his band of reluctant defenders are able to scrape together a few guns to fight off the invading hordes, their supply of ammunition is limited, and with the telephone lines and electricity cut, they won't be able to hold the fort for long...
"Assault of Precinct 13", despite its low-budget trappings, is effective as an action-thriller as it borrows a number of elements from horror films, a genre that Carpenter is very familiar with. Like most horror films, where the protagonists find themselves in a confined space, Bishop and his fellow defenders are cut off from the outside world without any hope for escape. Though the nameless gang members never utter a single line of dialogue in the film, their sheer numbers and relentless desire to exact revenge make them menacing and seemingly unstoppable villains. As in "Night of the Living Dead", these elements give "Assault on Precinct 13" an intensely claustrophobic atmosphere, which further ratchets up the tension- and surprise-filled narrative.
Mind you, "Assault on Precinct 13" does not thrive on paranoia and atmosphere alone. With two strong and likable characters in the form of Bishop and Napoleon, it easy to become emotionally-invested in their fight for survival. Bishop is the level headed born leader, while Napoleon, despite his obvious who-gives-a-damn cynicism, is infused with both intelligence and a strong sense of honor. Some of the best scenes in the film involve the interaction between these two characters. Aside from these two main characters, Laurie Zimmer delivers a terrific supporting turn as one of the precinct's secretaries who admirably rises to the occasion during the impromptu siege.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the rest of the supporting characters. In addition to being given banal dialogue, the other characters are played by some of the more amateur actors in the cast, and the stilted delivery of their lines accounts for some cringe-worthy moments in the film. Given the tension of the situation, some of the emotional responses elicited by the supporting characters are wildly inappropriate, and even laughable at times. But in the grand scheme of the entire film, it is a minor flaw that is forgivable, considering the difficult conditions under which Carpenter put this thriller together.
The urban thriller "Assault on Precinct 13" is certainly not your garden-variety horror film, but all the right elements are in place. The production values may not be what you're used to, and some of the acting leaves much to be desired, but this ambitious sophomore effort from horrormeister John Carpenter offers up some interesting characters and a compelling story. If you thought "Night of the Living Dead" made for a terrific main course, then "Assault on Precinct 13" makes for a great dessert.