Straightforward yet complex. Gritty yet stylized. Uncompromising yet highly polished. These are just some of the adjectives that come to mind when I think of John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). Essentially an urban, contemporary transplant of Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo, the film is a classic siege thriller, an early classic from filmmaker who would go on to have many.
A lot is going on one day in the Los Angeles ghetto. A police officer (Austin Stoker) on his first day of the job, a hardened convict (Darwin Jostin) on a bus taking him to death row, a nervous suburban man (Martin West) driving with his moppet daughter (Kim Richards), a no-nonsense secretary (Laurie Zimmer), a police official (Charles Cyphers) overseeing the transfer of the transfer of the convict, and others end up at a police station during its final night of operations. Outside, a vicious youth gang known as Street Thunder and armed with assault weapons lays siege to the building, determined to avenge fallen members and kill anyone they find.
One of the joys of Assault on Precinct 13 is seeing how all the different plot threads come together. The characters aren't particularly deep. We don't learn much about where they come from, but they're well drawn and compelling. Bishop, the rookie cop, is the calm, rational center who takes charge. Napolean Wilson, the convict, is the prototype Carpenter anti-hero: anti-authority, honorable, tough, an outsider with a dry sense of wit and sense of self preservation. Without Wilson, there'd be no Snake Pliskin or John Nada. Also of note is Leigh, the secretary. She doesn't need a man to look out for her. Despite taking a bullet to the arm, she grabs a gun and mounts a defense against the gang onslaught.
The film is a little rough around the edges. Some of the dialogue, character actions, and editing don't ring entirely true, but the film doesn't feel like the low-budget effort it is. The action is suitably tense, exciting, and well cut. Carpenter makes the most of his locations, giving the film a dark, almost film-noir like atmosphere. His pulsing, simple score works wonders.
Assault on Precinct 13 just works. Like all the different storylines, everything just comes together. It's a limited, direct film, but it's assembled with confidence and professionalism. It's a quintessential Carpenter movie.