An explosion of violence is unleashed on the audience in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) when a violent gang attacks a police station. The story combines Rio Bravo with Night of the Living Dead.
Ethan Bishop, a black policeman, takes command of a dilapidated police station on its last operational night before being decommissioned. The station is in a rough, gang-ridden neighbourhood — to defend it, Ethan Bishop must work with two dangerous prisoners, earning their mutual trust.
The story presents an interesting vision of a broken America torn apart by poverty and lack of opportunity. In this urban dystopia, the police are at war with the gangs, who are presented as ‘lost’ to society. They are somewhat akin to a supernatural affliction, a relentless marauding presence who appear at night like demons from a horror story. The gang members are ‘cartoon’ baddies, reminiscent of ‘classic’ era ‘Cowboy and Indians’ stories, where the heroic characters fight a dangerous ‘other’. The gang members are presented as a dangerous monster, their humanity downplayed, coming across as almost mechanical. They never speak, or show human traits, and are often depicted in silhouette or with their faces obscured.
To give the story a contemporary twist the conventional hero, Ethan Bishop, a black policeman, is forced to work with a white criminal, Napoleon Wilson. The gang members come from a racially diverse background. Although the story’s violent plot feels very machismo, it doesn’t have the unpleasant misogyny of many 1970s action films, like The Wild Bunch (1971). The female character Leigh works as an office administrator, but she’s able to handle herself in the ensuing chaos, and use a gun when necessary. She is both feminine and strong, instead of the frequently common 1970s characterisations of women in dramatic action plots as hysterical and prone to becoming a liability. It’s a positive representation.
The story lingers at the beginning, typical of many 1970s crime films, presenting the audience with a realistic scenario and building the suspense — describing the elements that make this ‘perfect storm’. The audience knows that something bad is going to happen sooner or later; it’s a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’. In this sense, it’s akin to a tragedy in the making, or a disaster movie. The attention to the build-up creates realism and provides a voyeuristic space for the audience to watch the action as it happens. The audience are real-time observers. The dramatic action sequences hark back to the scenarios of ‘old fashioned’ ‘Cowboys and Indians’ stories — but relocated to a contemporary, urban blighted America. The good guys are ‘holed up’ in a place they can’t escape from (a farmstead, a canyon, or a defensive circle of wagons), outnumbered by the monstrous ‘other’, who dishes out horrific violence without showing any guilt or mercy.
Inside the building, Ethan Bishop is the strong, level-headed leader everyone depends on for their survival. He must put his faith in two prisoners to help him fight off the gang members, and a couple of female office workers. They are a typical ‘ragtag band’ fighting against the odds, battling the merciless ‘other’. The action sequences are like a game of Whac-A-Mole (1976) with danger popping up here and there, requiring quick reactions to stay alive. The repetitive, almost task-based nature of the fight scenes has a computer game simplicity to it — akin to a tower defence game. The gang members keep appearing at the same windows and doorways, and the interior of the building appears as a sort of computer game maze of interconnected corridors.
Assault of Precinct 13 shares similarities with John Carpenter’s later film The Thing, which sees a group of scientists fending off a violent body-morphing alien. The corridors inside the police station could almost be the corridors inside the Antarctic research station, the heroes in both stories are fighting off a relentless monster. There’s also the trust element: can Ethan Bishop trust the prisoners who are fighting with him; can the hero in The Thing trust the people around him (they could be aliens in human form). Both stories share the same, simple but effective, ‘shoot ‘em up’ style action format that later became the go to scenario of so many first-person computer games.
Unlike many 1970s action films, Assault of Precinct 13 manages to be both shockingly violent and yet retain a moral core. It celebrates the teamwork and trust required to defeat a ruthless enemy, and warns about a dystopian world overtaken by a dehumanising gang culture.