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Film / Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

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"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 (Carpenter being a massive fan of classic movie Westerns and having always wanted to make a film reminiscent of the genre). Alternatively, it's Night of the Living Dead (1968) with a street gang instead of a zombie horde. When a decommissioned police station in a Los Angeles ghetto finds itself under siege from a violent street gang, a rookie 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:

  • Big Bad: Subverted. The ice-cold, eerily quiet and murderous white warlord is clearly set up as this after he murders Kathy, but he's quite easily gunned down by her grieving father afterwards. From that point onwards, the gang members have no clear leader, or any characterization at all, acting more as an eerily faceless hive mind than as individual people.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Most of the cast is dead and Wilson is still facing the death penalty, but considering other John Carpenter films that's practically a parade with balloons and circus animals.
  • 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.
    Wells: It means they don't care. They're not afraid to die, any of them. They want to rip us apart, no matter what it costs. It means to the death.
  • Boom, Headshot!: How Wells is killed.
  • Born in the Wrong Century: When asked by Leigh why he didn't escape with Wells when he had the chance, Wilson hints at a reluctance to abandon a woman or a helpless man. His actions are a foil to next generation criminals like the Street Thunders who kill little girls and innocent bystanders For the Evulz.
    Leigh: The very least of our problems is we've run out of time.
    Wilson: It's an old story with me. I was born outta time.
  • Bottomless Magazines: Subverted. 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.
  • Butt-Monkey: Wells, who lampshades it by proclaiming he was born unlucky before being forced into a dangerous escape attempt.
  • Catchphrase: Wilson's is up there. "Got a smoke?"
  • Chekhov's Gun
    • The police chief conspicuously loading a shotgun and placing it in a locked box, which he then leaves in his office.
    • Another literal example with the ice cream man's revolver. While he doesn't get to use it, Lawson later takes it and uses it to gun down the gang member who killed his daughter.
    • Wilson searches the police station for weapons and finds a box of magnesium flares, but no flare gun to fire them. Later he notes an acetylene tank in an evidence crate that could have blown them all up if a bullet had struck it. It's no surprise when he comes up with the idea of combining all these for their final stand.
  • Clean Up Crew: After the first shoot-out, the gang members retrieve all the bodies of everyone who was shot outside the station and even put the cars back in the carpark, so even if someone manages to report the gunfire, there's nothing there for anyone to see if they drove past.
  • Cowardly Lion: Wells, who alternates between pure cowardice and battling it out with the gangsters.
  • Crooks Are Better Armed: Justified by establishing early that the Street Thunder gang have gotten hold of a stash of stolen firearms, including scoped M16 rifles and Broomhandle Mauser pistols—the latter isn't exactly a government issue weapon, so they must have been stolen from a private collector. However when it comes to the final battle in the basement the firearms have mysteriously disappeared, enabling Bishop and Wilson to hold the gang members off with a makeshift barricade and clubs.
  • 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.
  • Danger Takes a Backseat: Wells is killed by a gangster hiding in the backseat of the car he was hiding in.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Wells and Wilson. Even Leigh has her moments.
  • Death of a Child: The main plot is kicked off by one of the gangsters murdering a little girl.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Lawson is clearly set up as a major character after losing his daughter and shooting the man responsible, but once he gets to the police station he experiences a severe Heroic BSoD after going into shock and completely shuts down emotionally, basically ceasing to exist as a character and becoming more of a plot device.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Lawson becomes completely despondent by the time he arrives at the police station, having just witnessed the death of his daughter and killing the gangster responsible, and spends most of the movie slumped against a wall, not even reacting to the gunfights around him.
  • 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.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: Lawson kicks off the plot and a lot of deaths by running into the police station, he himself running from the gangsters who casually shoots up the ice cream truck and Lawson's daughter. Both serve no purpose but to kick off the siege. Lampshaded by the secretary Julie, who notes he was just some random somebody who brought Hell on the station.
  • Disapproving Look: Bishop and Leigh both give one to Julie after she suggests they hand Lawson over to the gang, since he's the one they want.
    Julie: (defensively) Well, don't give me that civilized look!
  • Disc-One Final Boss: The menacing ice-blond gang leader, who kicks off the entire initial round of violence by shooting Kathy dead, is shortly thereafter shot dead in turn by her grieving father, in a deliberately anticlimactic manner. From this point onwards, the gang members have no leader; they think and move as one.
  • Distress Ball: After seeing his daughter has been murdered, Lawson makes several remarkably stupid decisions.
    • After the ice cream truck shooting, he could have telephoned the police (not to mention an ambulance!) from the phone box right next to his car. Instead, he goes chasing off after a car full of armed killers.
    • Having chased the car full of killers until after sunset, he finally confronts them and manages to kill one. Instead of driving off in his car (which is not shown to have been damaged), he runs away on foot.
    • For their part, three of the killers run away run away from Lawson instead of gunning him down. Perhaps they could have worked out a plan in all the time they spent driving around?
  • Doomed Hurt Guy: Seriously ill prisoner Caudell is shot dead during the first assault.
  • 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 Street Thunder 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: All the action takes place over the course of a single night. This gets lampshaded by Ethan; after the initial hail of bullets, he comments that Lawson only came in about thirty minutes ago.
  • First Day from Hell: The movie takes place during Bishop's first day as a Lieutenant in the California Highway Patrol.
  • 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.
  • Gangbangers: The Street Thunder gang.
  • Girlish Pigtails: Worn by Lawson's daughter.
  • Heroic BSoD: Lawson, after arriving at the precinct. Not even a loud gunfight snaps him out of it.
  • Hellish L.A.: Set in South Central in The '70s as a violent gang takes over the city.
  • 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...
    • Crosses into Guns Do Not Work That Way when Wells says he was "clicking off empty shots all night and didn't know it" because of the silencer attached to his gun. Even if the silencer would suppress the flash and noise of a gun, it doesn't effect the recoil of each shot, which he would definitely have felt.
  • 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.
  • Hysterical Woman: A downplayed example, but Julie spends most of the film panicking, in contrast to the cool-headed Leigh. Guess which one of them dies?
  • 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 self-confessed 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.
  • 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.
    • The Warden trips up Wilson who's being Shipped in Shackles. Wilson gets payback shortly afterwards by using his chain to trip up the Warden.
    • Chaney roughs up Lawson after he runs into the station, and shoves Wells and Napoleon while escorting then to their cells.
  • 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.
  • Nerves of Steel: Leigh is surprisingly calm throughout most of the movie and even takes getting shot in the arm by a gangster that's right in front of her as a minor annoyance.
  • New Old West: This was, after all, inspired by Rio Bravo.
  • Non-Indicative Name: The movie actually takes place in "Precinct 9, Division 13." The title was chosen by the film's distributor, who basically thought "Precinct 13" sounded cool and ominous.
  • Nursery Rhyme: Wells and Wilson play an altered version of "Potatoes" to see who goes on a suicide run to get help.
  • Offhand Backhand: The gangbanger who kills Kathy just hears her, lazily draws a revolver, and shoots her square in the chest without even looking at her.
  • 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 car roof.
  • Oral Fixation: Starker is constantly chewing on a piece of gum.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: Many critics have noted how the gang members are depicted not as three-dimensional characters, or even as human beings, but as zombie-like monsters: they rarely speak, show no emotion, and move with slow, relentless purpose. In addition, they pay little attention to their own survival or safety, and just keep relentlessly attacking with sheer force of numbers on their side, regardless of how many the main characters kill. Carpenter acknowledged that the original Night of the Living Dead was an influence on how he portrayed the gang members.
  • Photoflood Lighting: The police station is lit with Hollywood bulbs until they all get shot out.
  • Played for Horror: Carpenter described the film as a modern-day remake of Rio Bravo. Specifically, it's a version that takes the basic premise of lawmen besieged by an armed gang and shows how scary it would be to find oneself thrust into that situation, with the gangsters, as noted above, presented as almost like a human version of a zombie horde.
  • Please Wake Up: When Sgt. Chaney steps outside and gets gunned down by silenced rifles Julie laughs, thinking he's just fallen down. Even Bishop doesn't realise what's happened until some bullets fly off the wall next to him.
  • Rain of Blood: As a Shout-Out to the scene with the wounded gunman in Rio Bravo.
  • Red Shirt: The prison guard, Caudell, and the prison bus driver get no characterization and are all killed in the initial assault.
  • Retirony: The story takes place during the eponymous precinct's final night of operations. Conversely, it's Bishop's first night on the job as a newly-promoted CHP lieutenant.
  • Revenge Before Reason: The Street Thunder gang decides to take a blood oath and avenge their comrades who fell against the police by shooting up police stations and killing every person that gets in their way, no matter how many of their own they lose.
  • Running Gag: Wilson has a habit of asking "Got a smoke?", even at the most inopportune moments.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Starker gets a lot of focus during the first act and serves as the protagonist of the segments on the prison bus, making it shocking when he is moved down during the first assault on the station.
  • 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 that film's screenwriter, 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:
    • Leigh, who appears to react to everything as if it's part of the job as a police secretary and never looks shocked at all.
    • 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.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Wilson and Leigh are clearly into each other, but nothing ever comes of it, first due to the siege and then because the cops and paramedics show up.
  • White Gangbangers: Actually noted in-universe, as a news report on Street Thunder notes their unusual interracial status. Notably, each of the gang's four "warlords" represents a different ethnicity: one white guy, one black, one Latino, one Asian.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: It's Rio Bravo in The '70s. Or Night of the Living Dead with gangbangers.
  • The World's Expert (on Getting Killed): Downplayed. Everyone at the station is depicted as pretty competent, but Chaney is clearly the most experienced officer on duty, and he’s the very first casualty of the assault.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The blond gang leader casually guns down a little girl with no hesitation and for no reason other than sheer pointless cruelty.
  • Zombie Apocalypse: If only in spirit. The Street Thunder membership are only marginally more concerned about their self-preservation than real zombies and continue to lay siege to the police station despite losing dozens of their number.