Film / Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

"Got a smoke?"
Napoleon Wilson

Assault on Precinct 13 is a classic 1976 action thriller written and directed by John Carpenter.

The story is essentially Rio Bravo transported to The '70s. When a soon-to-be-abandoned police station in a Los Angeles ghetto finds itself under siege from a violent street gang, a cop must enlist the aid of a secretary and two convicts to hold off the attackers until help arrives.

It was remade in 2005 with Laurence Fishburne and Ethan Hawke starring.

The film provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: Leigh. Even after getting shot in the arm, she still manages to take down several mooks.
  • Affably Evil: Napoleon Wilson, who is friendly (as a convict can be to his captors) and quiet.
  • Almost Dead Guy: The ice cream truck driver hangs on just long enough to inform Lawson of the gun under the dash.
  • Anti-Hero/Anti-Villain: Napoleon Wilson is Type III as Anti-Hero/Type IV as Anti-Villain. We never learn what was his motivation for killing five men, but hey, he's still a criminal.
  • Bad Humor Truck: Hey, this isn't vanilla twist...
  • Black Dude Dies First: Averted. Wells is the last victim of the attack, and Lt. Bishop survives to the end.
  • Blood Oath: The "Cholo", taken by the Street Thunder members in revenge against the city after the police gun down six of their number at the start of the film.
  • Catch-Phrase: Wilson's is up there. "Got a smoke?"
  • Chekhov's Gun: Subverted, a lot.
    • It looks as if Napoleon will reveal why he killed his victims to the overzealous cop accompanying him, but as the siege starts, the cop is killed quickly. Napoleon actually laments not getting the opportunity to do so.
    • The phone booth in which Lawson takes cover in at first, and which Wells tries to run to before getting blown away.
    • Finally played straight with the magnesium flares, but not used until the very second. Justified in that there's no flare gun for them to be useful... yet.
  • Cut Phone Lines: Besides the silencers, the other reason why the Precinct cannot call for backup.
    • Ironically, the fact that the lines were cut ends up being the reason why they receive back up, as two cops investigating the reports of gunfire discover the body of the repairman who had been sent to repair the lines.
  • Cryptic Background Reference: At different times Wilson is asked why he committed murder and why he's nicknamed "Napoleon". Both times he promises to explain later, but never does get around to it.
  • Daylight Horror: The ice cream truck scene.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Wells and Wilson. Even Leigh has her moments.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: At least Carpenter thinks so; on the commentary he regrets taking too long to get to the assault. The fans tend to disagree.
  • Deus ex Machina: The patrol cops, searching for something completely unrelated (a missing phone company van dispatched to investigate cut phone wires), are the ones who call in backup before the station is completely overrun.
    • Actually, the cops were searching for the source of the gunfire reports, so not so much.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: Some weird inversion or whateversion of it — Lawson kicks off the plot and a lot of deaths by running into the police station, he himself sent there by the white gang member who casually shoots up the ice cream truck and Lawson's daughter. Both serve no purpose but to kick off the siege. Lampshaded by secretary Julie, who notes he was just some random somebody who brought Hell on the station.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Most of the cast are dead and Wilson is still facing the death penalty, but considering other John Carpenter films that's downright saccharine.
  • Enemy Mine: Bishop is forced to rely on the assistance of two prisoners (one of them a convicted murderer of six people) in defending the precinct.
  • Equal-Opportunity Evil: A radio announcer comments on the racial diversity of the gang, which would (then and now) be unusual in Los Angeles. This is lampshaded in-universe by the same announcer.
    • Shots of the gang members are even composed to emphasize this fact further.
  • Excuse Plot: In-universe, Lawson serves as this for why they target Precinct 13 in the first place; his killing the gangbanger who shot his daughter and then running into that station was simply as convenient a way to choose which station to attack as any.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Napoleon Wilson, despite being on his way to death row, lives by a code and will not abandon the defenders of the police station to their fate. Wells also shows shades of this as he is genuinely appalled by the lack of respect that the gang have for innocent lives.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: All the action takes place over the course of a single night. Lampshaded by Ethan; after the initial hail of bullets, he comments that Lawson only came in about thirty minutes ago.
  • Famous Last Words: See Bad Humor Truck.
  • For the Evulz: There doesn't seem to be any other reason for murdering an ice cream truck driver in broad daylight.
    • It's the gang's revenge on the city (for their successful ambush at the beginning). They're murdering at random based on the first "Cholo" they swear.
  • Friendly Enemy: Lt. Bishop and Napoleon Wilson. Before the attack, Bishop is the only cop that converses with Wilson as a person, and is genuinely concerned for the safety of everyone in the station. Wilson seems to appreciate this and during the attack defers to the officer, exhibits signs that he will take Bishop's side in a fight when Wells rebels, and thanks Bishop for saving his life, even though Bishop is unaware Wilson was on his way to execution. at the end, Bishop shoves another cop away who tries to put Wilson in cuffs, and tells Wilson he would be honored if he would accompany Bishop out of the station.
  • Gang Bangers: The Street Thunder gang.
  • Girlish Pigtails: Worn by Lawson's daughter.
  • Harbinger of Impending Doom: Lawson.
  • The Hero: Ethan Bishop.
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.: Lawson, after arriving at the precinct.
  • Hollywood Silencer: Plot point: the reason why the initial barrage goes unnoticed, and why the prison convoy detail is slaughtered after the station chief is shot. Why gangbangers have silencers on M16s is explained — they stole a weapons shipment before the plot starts. Why they have silencers on revolvers, on the other hand...
  • Hope Spot: Wells gets out through a sewer pipe, hotwires a car, and speeds off for the phone booth... only to be killed by a gangbanger hiding in the back seat.
  • Infant Immortality: Blown away with a vengeance.
  • It Works Better with Bullets: When Wells turns his gun on the other survivors in a bid to escape, Leigh stands in front of him and gives an impassioned speech on why he will fail. She bravely reaches out to take his weapon and she facepalms when she realizes...
    "I go through all that, and his gun isn't even loaded."
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Wilson, who aside from being a world class asshole and murderer, actually does his best to help the people trapped in the station. Also Wells, who is snippy and snarky but has his heart in the right place.
  • It's Quiet... Too Quiet
  • Karma Houdini: A sizable number of the gangbangers flee into the night when the cops show up.
  • Kick the Dog: The bad guys not only shoot an ice cream truck driver, but also shoot a little girl in the chest after she comes back to complain that he gave her the wrong ice cream, marking this lot as even worse than the other gangs of the city. Worse, the shooter does it as an afterthought.
  • Kill It with Fire: The climax has Bishop rigging an acetylene tank and shooting it with a rifle to torch up a bunch of gangbangers in the precinct basement.
  • New Old West: This was, after all, inspired by Rio Bravo.
  • Nursery Rhyme: Wells and Wilson play an altered version of "Potatoes" to see who goes on a suicide run to get help.
  • Offhand Backhand: "I wanted vanilla twist!"
  • Oh, Crap!: Several:
    • When the defenders in the station see the first wave of gang members coming across the parking lot.
    • In a fit of desperation, Bishop throws a Wilson a loaded shotgun. After Wilson blows away several gang members coming through a door, he turns back to look at Bishop, who looks back with the stunned realization he just gave a convicted murderer a loaded weapon.
    • Wells, when he hears about "the Cholo."
    • The patrol officers when they discover the source of the "rain" drops on their rooftop.
  • Phone Booth: Plays a plot role twice — first when Lawson stops to call his daughter's nanny, then later when one of the prisoners tries to make a run to it.
  • Photoflood Lighting: The police station is lit with Hollywood bulbs until they all get shot out.
  • Rain of Blood: As a Shout-Out to the scene with the wounded gunman in Rio Bravo.
  • Reality Ensues: After all the buildup, the first proper shootout with the gangbangers is both awesome and cathartic. It also leaves our heroes with eight bullets between them.
  • Retirony: The story takes place during the titular precinct's final night of operations.
  • Running Gag: "Got a smoke?"
  • Salt and Pepper: Bishop and Wilson can be seen as a version of this.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The story that Ethan Bishop tells about his father sending him to a police station when he was six years old with a note is actually a true story told about his childhood by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock told this to François Truffaut in Truffaut's book Hitchcock.
    • There are a couple of dialogue nods to Once Upon a Time in the West. When asked to explain himself and his actions, Darwin responds, "Only at the point of dyin'." As Wilson explains why he has killed so many people, he recalls that when he first saw a preacher, the preacher told him, "Son, there is something strange about you. You got something to do with death."
    • John Carpenter edited the film under the pseudonym John T. Chance.
    • Speaking of Rio Bravo, Leigh's name is an in-joke reference to writer Leigh Brackett. And Wilson always asking for a smoke is a running gag inspired by the cigarette gags in Howard Hawks Westerns.
  • The Siege: Lampshaded by Bishop.
    "This is a siege! We're under goddamn siege!"
  • The Stoic: The gangbangers all wear the same stony expressions no matter what their situation, even the one who killed Lawson's daughter and the ice cream truck driver remains absolutely expressionless when he's mortally wounded in a shootout with Lawson.