I’m convinced that John Carpenter knows how to direct exactly one kind of movie – rip-offs of “Rio Bravo.” Having just seen his “Assault on Precinct 13” for the first time, I have to point at it and laugh at the gross amount of time we spend watching Not John Wayne survive an attack by Not Indians. Compare this to his later films and it’s like he’s been ripping himself off, while ripping off “Rio Bravo” at the same time.
It gets confusing when you analyze it too hard.
The setup involves the leaders of a gang called Street Thunder declaring vengeance on the cops for killing several of their members. They cross paths with a father and his little girl, which eventually leads to the gang assaulting the police station in the title. That may seem a stretch but I’m leaving out a few crucial details, some considered by the time as “SHOCKING!” Maybe it’s in bad taste, but I actually laughed. Go me.
The station in question is closing at the end of the night and only a skeleton crew remains. When a prisoner transfer bus shows up, more grist for the mill arrives. Their small band of cops/crooks must hold off a gang hell-bent on wiping them out and that’s pretty much all there is to it. No fancy tricks, no special forces to the rescue, nothing. Kill or be killed with a dwindling supply of ammunition and no way out.
What should be a tense stand-off is instead rendering fairly boring by Carpenter’s evident lack of pacing skills (at the time). It was only his second film so I can’t slag him too hard (though James Cameron’s second film was “The Terminator” so make of that what you will) but the film drags when it should speed up.
It doesn’t help that all of the actors show the emotional range of a turnip. The lead actress especially goes for Smoldering and hits something closer to Insincere. I love how her reaction doesn’t change ONE SINGLE BIT when she gets shot in the arm, and later complains that it she “can’t move it, and it hurts like a sonofabitch.” That would be one word as she pronounces it, not three, and it all manner of fail.
If you’re going for a Carpenter 70’s movie, stick with “Halloween.” Even 30 years later, that movie is still scary and for all the right reasons.