Welcome to the JOE-DOWN, a back-and-forth movie review blog by two snarky newspapermen named Joe from Minnesota, Joe Froemming and Joe Brown. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Froemming picked “Assault on Precinct 13.”
The Movie: “Assault on Precinct 13”
Starring: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer
Director: John Carpenter
Plot Summary: (From IMDB) An unlikely partnership between a Highway Patrol Officer, two criminals and a station secretary is formed to defend a defunct Los Angeles precinct office against a siege by a bloodthirsty street gang.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 98 percent
Froemming: We’re staying in California this week.
Last week, we followed a bunch of children from Utah to Los Angeles to witness the amazing unveiling of “Super Mario Bros. 3,” perhaps the greatest video game ever made. This week, we are taking a detour to Anderson, California — which is literally labeled in this as a ghetto of LA — with “Assault on Precinct 13,” the second movie from JOE-DOWN Hall of Famer John Carpenter. A movie that pretty much set the tone of all of Carpenter’s films that followed: Creepy synth soundtrack, a cocky antihero, strong female characters and social commentary.
Also, one of the few of his I had not seen yet until now.
Brown, I gotta go and talk to this chucklehead ice cream man. I specifically asked for a vanilla swirl cone and he just gave me vanilla, so why don’t you give us your first impression.
Brown: I’ve never seen this. So when you told me this was the pick, I did a quick search and saw this was a John Carpenter movie. So of course we’re going to like it.
I mean, I think this is the seventh John Carpenter movie we’ve reviewed. For those reviews, we did:
- “Escape from New York”
- “The Thing”
- “Big Trouble in Little China”
- “They Live”
- “Escape from L.A.”
Now, we can add “Assault on Precinct 13,” which is pretty much John Carpenter’s telling of the Alamo. Only with street toughs, one of Apollo Creed’s trainers and a guy constantly asking for a cigarette.
Froemming, why don’t you get us started while I lock away a shotgun that you’ll desperately need later.
Froemming: We begin with a street gang called Street Thunder, which sounds suspiciously like an old NES game or a really bad liquor like Mad Dog 20/20.
Brown: I had the same reaction to finding out they were Street Thunder like Bruce Campbell did when Peter Parker wanted to be known as the Human Spider.
Froemming: They are breaking into some place to steal guns, and the police show up and literally shoot six of them dead seconds after they yell freeze.
This movie is what both the far right and far left think America is.
This leads the local leaders of the gang, one who looks exactly like Che Guevara, to take a blood oath to swear vengeance, like they are agreeing on something important, like lunch. I think we can all agree blood oaths are (REDACTED) disgusting. Just shake hands on it like normal people.
Brown: It’s one thing to do a blood oath which, yes, gross as hell. It’s another when they A. cut themselves down the length of their arms (and don’t have bandages when we see them later), and B. POUR THE BLOOD INTO A BOWL. I didn’t need that imagery in my life. If a blood oath is really necessary, just cut your hand like Alan from “The Hangover.”
After this point, the movie veers off into three different plot points.
Froemming: Yup, the first of which is we meet Lieutenant Ethan Bishop, who is part of the highway patrol, but has nowhere near the charm of Llewellyn “Ponch” Poncherello.
He is starting his day like Brown and I do, late in the afternoon. He is told his assignment that night is to watch over the final hours of Anderson’s police precinct. Why a highway patrolman is taking charge in the autumn hours of an old police building, I have no answer. And neither does the movie. But that is where he is headed.
Our next plotline involves a divorced dad (?) driving his daughter to his ex-wife’s place, peppering her with what to say, because bad parenting was not only a staple in the ’80s, but the ’70s as well. While they are driving around, we are told they are not in the good part of LA. This is the part of LA where something crazy happens, such as Peter Fonda and Snake Plissken surfing the streets.
The third story is in a prison, where convicts are about to be transported to another prison. And it is here we meet the DNA of every Kurt Russel character in a Carpenter film, Napoleon Wilson. The man just wants a heater, and nobody is willing to offer him a smoke.
Brown: This man wants a cigarette as badly as Patty and Selma from “The Simpsons.”
Yeah, this movie really wants us to like Napoleon. I admit, I enjoyed him once he twisted his chains around the warden, made the man trip and told the guards “He doesn’t stand up as well as he used to.” Oh Napoleon, you card!
Froemming: I hope if he works the prison kitchen, he yells the following to the inmates he serves, like this other Napoleon:
Brown: The first 25 minutes or so of this movie is a slow build. We get Bishop getting ready to police a vacant police station with nothing but a receptionist and a phone operator. The inmates are getting bussed to a new prison. And we watch as a single dad in an ill-fitting suit makes small talk with a little girl as a neurotic ice cream man watches gang members do nothing but drive around a neighborhood.
Eventually, we have to get to the fireworks factory.
And JE-SUS CHRIST, do we get to the fireworks factory!
The young girl, Kathy, sees the ice cream man and asks for a vanilla twist cone. She walks away and realizes she got plain vanilla (which, come on, you should have noticed that on sight alone).
As she arrives back to the truck, one of the gangsters shoots the ice cream man AND Nancy for NO (REDACTED) REASON.
For the first time since we watched “Face/Off,” we have infanticide in a JOE-DOWN movie, Froemming.
Froemming: This movie is almost 50 years old, and that scene was shocking as hell to me.
The dad gets off the phone, looks over and sees his daughter crumpled on the ground, dead as a doornail and sees who did it. The dying ice cream man, in his final breaths, tells him where to find his gun. Because even the jolly ice cream man is packing heat in this hellhole of a town.
He chases after this goon and his good-time buddies, finds them and shoots his daughter’s killer dead.
Is he justified here? Yes. Was it smart to provoke a gang that is taking over this town like the Taliban is taking over Afghanistan? That is a good question. I would say “no.” As they are now chasing him like the Republicans were chasing that homeless man in “The Purge.”
Brown: Shock value aside, is there any purpose to the whole dead daughter/vengeful dad bit?
The gangsters already vowed revenge on the police with their blood oath. The dad runs to the abandoned police station (he could have driven but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯) with a couple gangsters in tow. But… they were going to attack the precinct anyways…
Froemming: I don’t think they were going to attack a pretty much empty precinct. The father killed one of the four leaders, so they followed him to the precinct. This is how you go from A to B to C. Now they want the dad, and they are already pissed at the police, so they are gonna do what they are gonna do. Attack the precinct to get their revenge on him.
But before that, we have a man hacking on the prison bus like he has COVID-19, and the bus needs to go to the nearest precinct to get him a doctor. Why does nobody know this precinct is hours away from being defunct? The dad being chased by maniacs, I get that. But a prison bus? They should know to go to the new one, right?
Brown: Yeah, having the cop on the bus explain to Bishop that they want the prisoner to see a doctor in case his sickness was contagious was a little too close to 2021 reality. Seriously, hearing someone sneeze in a Target is like hearing a gunshot go off.
The prisoners are put in holding cells, and Napoleon is charming everyone by *checks notes* doing nothing but asking for a smoke. He’s not quick-with-a-joke-or-a-light-of-your-smoke charming like the Piano Man. He just looks too-old-for-his-age rough like a T-Bird from “Grease 2.”
Froemming: I think he was a member of the Yellow Jacket Boys.
Brown: He’s probably good at getting the kids to bop with him.
As the cops from the prison bar try reaching a doctor, they discover the phones are dead. Then right on cue, the power gets cut.
But we’re in a police station, so nothing can possibli go wrong, right?
Froemming: I love that this movie is basically a Western and “Night of the Living Dead” in a jail. Also, watching this I realized “Fargo” season two kinda paid homage to this, which was pretty cool:
Well, one cop walks outside and is shot dead. Nobody heard the shots because they used silencers, which the Mythbusters would have some thoughts about:
Well, our heroes are in what some would call a real pickle.
Brown: I love that the stock sounds for a gun silencer is the same noise they were using on the Nintendo 64 game “Goldeneye” 30 years later.
From here, bedlam ensues at the nearly vacated police station.
As the prisoners are about to be loaded back on the bus, the gang starts opening fire on them, leaving only Napoleon and Apollo Creed’s trainer alive in that situation. Bishop throws them back in the cell while also asking for the keys that Napoleon stole from the dead guard. What a card!
It feels like for a good five minutes, we’re subjecting to so much gun firing and glass shattering, I thought Stone Cold Steve Austin was about to give everyone in the precinct a boot and a Stunner.
Froemming: Well, their imprisonment does not last long, as the electricity is cut and shots are going off at the building. They need all the help they can get, so Bishop sends Leigh to grab these two, only she finds out the gang is breaking into the building from this area.
Well, she gets shot in the arm, and this seems to just piss her off as she jacks this asshole up right after. Even kicking him in the old beanbag. No shame in kicking someone in the beanbag.
And another guy tries to fight Wilson, and gets his arm broken with a judo chop.
It is amazing how these characters are now in God Mode from “Doom.” Taking bullets, kicking ass, defying logic.
Brown: If this police department had the BFG, this movie would have been over after, what, 40 minutes? I’m sure the BFG is in the new precinct building.
With four people with guns stationed at four different parts of the building, they’re able to survive the first wave of gangsters. How there isn’t more than four entry points into a big, largely vacant building is beyond me, but let’s move on.
Something weird that the people inside the precinct are noticing is the lack of bodies and carnage left behind. Apparently the gang is hiding the bodies and putting the cars back in place as to not raise suspicion to any onlookers. People ARE reporting hearing what they think are fireworks, but nobody lives in the immediate vicinity of the precinct.
There is one cop car patrolling the area, but they see nothing out of the ordinary and don’t drive by the station because it’s being closed down.
Later, they’ll acknowledge that they know a few people are working into the building during the overnight shift.
So, yeah, the patrolling officers are lazy assholes for not, at the very least, checking with the sparsely filled precinct to ask if they’ve heard anything.
Froemming: Well, the one does want to drive past it, but he isn’t driving, and those are the rules of the road. Driver chooses where to go and what radio station will be played.
And Apollo Creed’s trainer, he wants to, you know…
And get the hell out of there. But, Bishop says he won’t let him do that, because he is still a cop. A cop who is under siege in a police precinct with limited ammo and limited help. Leigh tries to talk him out of it, and has this big old speech, only to realize — in a frustrated and annoyed tone — this guy’s gun has zero bullets in it. Good luck with the gang, Apollo’s Trainer!
Brown: I’m sure a training montage could have gotten the group ready for another wave of gangsters.
Instead, Apollo’s trainer is tasked with escaping the building, hot-wiring a car and asking for help. So he escapes through a latch in the basement of the precinct and escapes outside.
Ehh, I’ve seen at least one better prison escape through the sewers.
Even with gangsters closing in, Apollo’s trainer hotwires the car and makes it out… only to pull over about, what, a block later, to use a pay phone? It doesn’t matter anyways, because there was a gangster hanging out in the backseat and he shoots
Marvin Apollo’s trainer in the face head.
Froemming: It is very suspicious how smart and prepared this gang is. They should be going for a “Heat“-style heist, not shooting ice cream men and attacking a near empty building.
With Apollo’s Trainer now dead, and no signs of help coming, the gang decide to head to the basement, where they can have a last stand against this highly-skilled, oddly-motivated gang by shooting a tank of acetylene gas that just happens to be sitting around a police station. Don’t worry, some piece of wood will protect them from this super violent explosion! That is how science works.
Brown: Before the gangsters start attacking the basement, they were lighting Molotov cocktails upstairs. I feel like they could have used one or two of those downstairs instead of trying to push around Bishop and Napoleon. But no, a bunch of them are getting knocked out/killed due to blunt-force trauma.
With just three bullets left in his rifle, Bishop needs all three to FINALLY shoot the tank of acetylene gas. This is what had to be running through Napoleon’s head:
And after discovering the body of a murdered telephone company worker, the backup finally arrives at the precinct.
The gangsters that made it their blood oath to give their lives to kill the cops and destroy the precinct… yeah, they scatter like cockroaches from a light.
The dad, who has been a non-factor for about 90 percent of this movie, is stretchered out. Leigh, badass that she is, walks out with no help from the paramedics. Bishop and Napoleon, they walk out laughing together. I’m sure seconds after the credits start rolling, Bishop gives Napoleon the keys to a 10-second car. Something about family, I think? They were awfully chummy at the end.
Froemming: I would like to add that this was not an assault on Precinct 13, it was an assault on
Precinct 9, Division 13. This was distracting to me the whole movie.
Brown, let’s make a blood oath to wrap this up down in recommendations.
WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?
Froemming: Yup. It is classic Carpenter. I fear we have hit all his high notes, and now only have his more questionable films left to review.
Brown: Sure. Being John Carpenter’s second movie, you experience all the tropes. Tight writing, action, a kickass synth soundtrack. It’s vintage Carpenter.
Here is what’s coming up for the next JOE-DOWN: