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Assault on Precinct 13(1976)
Police ambush and kill several gang members in Los Angeles. Gang members make a pact of blood to strike back at police, and conduct a siege on the police station which is almost abandoned and due to be closed. Staff of the closing precinct and the criminals being held there while in transit must work together to fight off the attacking gang members.
For more about Assault on Precinct 13 and the Assault on Precinct 13 Blu-ray release, see the Assault on Precinct 13 Blu-ray Review
Starring: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Martin West, Tony Burton, Charles Cyphers
Director: John Carpenter
» See full cast & crew
Assault on Precinct 13 Blu-ray Review
A John Carpenter classic receives the proper treatment on Blu-ray.
Reviewed by Dustin Somner, March 30, 2009
John Carpenter made a name for himself in the the late-70's with his release of Halloween (which is arguably the most popular horror film of all time), and went on to direct a string of films in the 1980's that eventually went on to achieved cult classic status. To this day, some of my favorite films are John Carpenter creations, such as Big Trouble in Little China, The Thing, and Escape From New York. So where did John Carpenter disappeared to? Perhaps he gave up on Hollywood after the miserable box-office performance of Vampires (1998) and Ghosts of Mars (2001), but I'd like to think he is gearing up for a future project that will put him back on the A-list of directors.
Assault on Precinct 13 hit theaters in 1976 (2 years prior to Halloween), and was created on a measely budget of $100,000.00. The film marked Carpenter's directing debut following film school, so he had to use relatively unknown actors, edit the film on his own, and create the soundtrack himself to stay within his budget. Although the film didn't gain much popularity during it's original release, it has achieved a cult following over the years, and has been given the first-class treatment in this Blu-ray release.
In a lawless neighborhood known as Anderson Ghetto, a group of 4 gang leaders form a blood pact to terrorize the citizens and police department following the slaying of 6 comrades. The local police precinct is in the process of relocation, and a newly promoted lieutenant by the name of Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) has been assigned to supervise the old precinct for one final night before operations are transferred to the new location. Meanwhile, a prisoner transfer bus is passing through town, when one of three transferred inmates falls ill, and they have to make an untimely stop at the precinct. Soon after the arrival of the bus, the seemingly uneventful night takes a turn for the worst when a man stumbles into the precinct with a slew of gang members hot on his heels. Will Bishop and the prisoners under his watch live through the night, or will the precinct fall to the blood-thirsty gang.
Carpenter originally wrote the film using the the title The Anderson Alamo, which seems appropriate given the plot of the film. This is a classic good versus evil tale, and the influence of the western genre can be seen at every turn. Even the dialogue in the script feels like it was lifted out of a John Wayne western. The bad guys are never given much of a backstory, and they barely say more than 5 words in the entire film. This was a great move on Carpenter's part, since we only have to worry about when the action is going to start, and when the gang-members are going to get what's coming to them.
Considering Carpenter didn't have much experience under his belt at the time he made this film, he still manages to get a solid performance out of almost every character. Darwin Joston gives a standout performance as the wise-cracking prisoner named Napoleon, and even though we know he likely belongs in jail for some manner of crime, he has his principles, and nails his part as the bad-guy you want to root for. It would be easy to see the film sliding into campy territory at times, but it is the solid acting that keeps up the intensity, and causes us to really root for these characters. Having seen the remake of Assault on Precinct 13, I think this is a superior film in almost every way, but especially in the acting department (which is kind of funny when you consider how much the actors in both films were paid, and the fact that the 1976 film used relatively unknown actors).
Regarding the action itself, this is a well-staged film, with plenty of pulse-pounding gun battles. Given the never-ending supply of gang thugs, it can border on comical to watch them get picked off one at a time as they come through the windows, but I think the tongue-in-cheek approach was what Carpenter was going for at times. More than anything else, this film is meant to be fun, and it succeeds in that pursuit. There is one shocking scene in the film that can be difficult to watch (even on repeat viewings), but I'd encourage you to watch the ice cream truck scene and look for the tension Carpenter is building. That ability to create tension would later land him huge success with Halloween, so it's interesting to see that same skillful technique at portraying an impending sense of dread in this film. If you choose to watch the film (and have never seen it before), I'd encourage you to watch it under the pretense that this is far from Oscar-worthy material, but a shining example of the early work of a promising director.
Assault on Precinct 13 Blu-ray, Video Quality
Assault on Precinct 13 is encoded using the AVC codec, with a bitrate that averages 20 MBPS. Considering the age of the film, and it's low-budget roots, I expected a problematic transfer, and that is exactly what I witnessed in the first scene of the film. Thankfully, that is not the case throughout the feature. The opening sequence is set at night, with a camera following a group of six gang members down an alley. Detail was completely lost in the shadows, and you could see black splotches where the transfer was unable to render the various shades of black. After that initial sequence, the video quality takes a 180 degree turn, and looks incredible. Daytime scenes fair the best, with a high level of detail, excellent color saturation, and no visible artifacting or edge-enhancement. I'd expected to see more grain in a film of this age, so there may have been a touch of DNR applied to the picture, but even if that was the case, it did not create the waxy facial textures I've seen on other films that incorporated the controversial use of DNR. Night-time sequences don't look as good as their day-time counterparts, but following the initial scene they are substantially better. There's still a loss of shadow detail at night, and blacks could have been deeper. Contrast wavers from scene to scene, with some shots showing nice differentiation, and others appearing like a black sheet with only the brightest portions of the picture shining through. I don't mean to be overly harsh on the video quality, since most of the problems I'm describing are likely present in the source material, and were simply not touched up for the remastering of this film. Bottom line, if you like the film enough to own it, you will not be disappointed by the transfer, and this is probably the best this film will ever look short of a complete frame by frame remastering.
One other thing worth mentioning, is an awful scene around the 55 minute mark of the film (screenshot #12). Black levels, contrast, colors, and detail all look subpar compared to the rest of the film. Fortunately, this scene is under a minute in length, so it shouldn't detract from your overall viewing experience. Other than that scene, and the initial scene of the film, Assault on Precinct 13 on Blu-ray offers a nice upgrade over previous releases of the film.
Assault on Precinct 13 Blu-ray, Audio Quality
In a welcomed move, Image has upgraded the original mono track to a lossless mix in DTS-HD MA 5.1, that should please original audio purists as well as those that favor the inclusion of a surround mix. When I say both camps should be happy, I'm referring to the lossless tracks ability to add a little spacial separation without muddling with the films mono roots. I'm not the type that feels every film should be remastered to offer a surround sound audio experience, but when a remaster can add heightened intensity to the viewing experience, while still staying true to the source material (by not tampering with volume levels or using hokey tricks to inappropriately simulate surround sound), I say go for it. Such is the case with Assault on Precinct 13. Dialogue is still front heavy, but the action sequences fill the room with effects that still sound appropriately dated (and admittedly cheesy at times), but add a greater feeling of immersion in the film. Beyond the use of surrounds, detail in the track is excellent, with every gunshot exhibiting the pop that filmgoers have been unable to fully appreciate since the film's theatrical release. Carpenters trademark synthesizer music is a little bright and blaring at times, but again, I feel this is representative of what he was going for, and is accurately portrayed in the track. For those of you that still prefer the untampered original audio (which I can appreciate), Image has included the mono track in Dolby Digital 2.0. I spot checked the mono track with the lossless track, and I doubt purists will be upset with the track, though I found it to be a little bright, and somewhat less crisp than the lossless track.
Assault on Precinct 13 Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The extras on the disc are all presented in standard definition (480p) with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio.
Interview (23 min): This feature was filmed in 2002, with John Carpenter and Austin Stoker. The two men look back on the film, and it's rise to cult status. The interview is somewhat entertaining, and the men really do cover a great deal of information in the brief period of time the interview lasts. On the downside, I have to wonder why the video and audio are so bad in this feature, considering this was filmed in 2002. It almost seems like someone grabbed their 10 year old video camera and began shooting.
Radio Spot 1&2 (30 sec. each): You have the option of listening to the radio spots that were originally used to advertise the film back in 1976.
Production Gallery (16 min.): This series of still shots is set to synthesizer music, and gives a background look at sets and photography from the film, as well as storyboards, the script, and other unique finds.
Isolated Score (feature length): Carpenter has always had a passion for completing the musical score on his films, so it is appropriate we are given a mono isolated score track. Bear in mind, this feature will only be for the absolute enthusiasts of the film, but it is still a nice inclusion.
Director Commentary (feature length): Carpenter is a film fan down to the core, so his audio commentaries have always been a highlight on prior DVD releases. Fortunately, this commentary track is no different, with exceptional insight on the filming, themes, budget, acting, and writing of the film. It is interesting to hear him speak on the film from a critical basis, but we have to keep in mind this was one of his very first films, and he probably didn't have the same level of confidence he developed in the following decade as a director. If you love films, this is worth a listen.
Trailer: The original theatrical trailer is included, but looks disappointing in standard definition.
Assault on Precinct 13 Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
If you've never seen Assault on Precinct 13, run out and give this a rent. Boasting the best audio/video presentation we have seen to date (and will likely ever see), any newcomers to the film will have the luxury of seeing and hearing Carpenter's vision in the way it was meant to be enjoyed. If you're already a fan, or you have an appreciation for over the top action with edge of your seat tension, then I'd wholeheartedly recommend this Blu-ray as a purchase.
Assault on Precinct 13 Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Image Brings More to Blu-ray - October 6, 2008
In an early announcement to retailers, Image Entertainment has revealed that they will bring the 1976 John Carpenter film 'Assault on Precinct 13' for Blu-ray on December 2nd. Just announced by Image, the company will bring the comedy 'Ping Pong Playa' to Blu-ray ...
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