For his second movie, apparently John Carpenter wanted to make a Western but didn't have enough money to recreate the era. He thus made Assault on Precinct 13 as an updated Western set in a contemporary Los Angeles police station, based on Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo (1959) starring John Wayne. I've never seen Rio Bravo, but somehow I don't imagine it's much like Assault on Precinct 13.
Sometimes this is a lot like a Western, mostly when Napoleon Wilson is being all laconic and macho. Then there's the end, in which our heroes ride off together into the sunset (er, go up the stairs). It's also been compared to Night of the Living Dead, but I think that's just people latching on to the fact that Carpenter has worked in the horror genre. I can see the similarities in the basic scenario, yes, but I don't think some plot parallels mean the story's aiming for the same notes. No, what this really feels like is a Seventies cop flick. Laugh it up all you like, but sometimes the Seventies are just too Seventies.
You've got the fashions. You've got the visual style. You've got that gleeful sadistic brutality that you got all the time from film-makers in the seventies, in which they'd kill kids, commit wanton acts of appalling callousness and generally go looking for taboos to break. Damn, those were good days!
It's not a flawless movie, mind you. There's some distracting discontinuity with the shadows on Wilson's face in the coach, which one could rationalise as natural changes of light as the coach moves along if they didn't jump without warning from shot to shot. The women aren't sexy. Famously, it isn't an assault on Precinct 13 (but instead Precinct 9, Division 13). And somehow it all feels a bit inconsequential... you're just gearing yourself up for a killer climax when the film suddenly ends. Somehow I expected it to be more violent and extreme - not that it's a lame movie or anything, but I think I expected something more visceral from the director of The Thing and Halloween. There's only one action sequence of note and it's half way through.
However I think we can be very, very grateful that Carpenter carefully made both the good and bad guys multi-ethnic. This movie really didn't need the complication of a racial angle to its massacres.
I can't decide whether to be refreshed or annoyed by the massively understated romance (done entirely in subtext, hints, what's left unsaid and meaningful pauses) between Wilson and Leigh. You've got a girl trapped in a life-or-death situation with a black cop and a convicted murderer who's on his way to death row. Naturally she falls for the man who shares her skin colour. Er, yeah.
Got a 2005 remake starring Laurence Fishburne and Brian Dennehy which seems to be generally regarded as not bad, but more conventional than Carpenter's version. I haven't seen that one, but the original is certainly stylish as hell and full of cool stuff. I loved the game of potatoes. I can't help a nagging feeling that it's the tiniest bit empty, but that doesn't mean it's not still a blast. And I bet you can't watch this through without humming Carpenter's kick-ass theme afterwards. I couldn't.