I have to say that I'm quite impressed with this newly restored transfer.
With an accurate widescreen 2.35:1 MPEG-4 encode that betrays hints of some slight DNR having taken place, the image looks mighty fine indeed. The stark look of the film - moody blacks and only rare flashes of colour; high contrast daytime scenes that capture the heat and the glare of the city - has been marvellously translated to this high-definition disc. Whilst there are some vaguely blurred edges during early sideways panning shots at the prison where we first meet Napoleon Wilson, Wells and their sick buddy as they are about to be put on the bus, the fast action of the film is well maintained and crisp. Edge enhancement is still there, though nowhere nearly as prevalent as it once was. It is apparent mostly on objects - actually Starker, to be honest - when they are seen against a light background, such as the yellowy walls, and is not a problem. Artefacts and noise are not an issue, either.
Colours were never Assault's strong point. Carpenter preferred a hazy, desaturated palette and, as a result, primaries were never allowed to be bold or alluring. But I will say that this version has more colour, and a warmer look than I've previously seen. It is true that blues and reds have been boosted but this, in no way, is detrimental to the look of the film. The heated debate about Halloween's BD colour-timing should not rear its ugly head with such vehemence here. As with the classic horror, Assault now loses that horrible blue TV-style shimmer that robbed it of so much detail, and if purists miss that then, hey, tough. Blood is quite vibrant, especially when Starker and the prison-bus squad get cut to ribbons in the garage. The blue of Cheney's uniform and the pinkish sunburn on the Warden's face also have more substance than ever before. The ominous orange and black sky that hangs over the station as dusk falls now possesses a richer, more luxurious appeal and, overall, the film looks cleaner and more naturalistic, which is exactly the approach that was taken with Halloween. I, for one, think that this is a definite improvement.
Interiors no longer lose detail in the murk. The power-cut brings in some deep shadow but the integrity of the setting is not compromised. Some of the external shots still look quite swallowed-up by the blackness of the isolated precinct and its car park, but even here, the sight of the gang's snipers is delivered with more detail than before, with clothing, weaponry and foliage rendered with more attention in 1080p. Headlights cut through the night with more sharpness and the glow from street-lamps don't have anywhere near as much fuzzing after-glow as they once did. Bishop looking out of the shattered windows in the front door provides an immediately obvious upgrade to any other version of the film. Look at the grain in the wood, the splinters and bullet-holes, and the glass shards. Look at Stoker's face. This image may not be as consistent as most recent films in terms of shot-to-shot, scene-by-scene resolution, but the occasions when it is grainier, or a little murkier or just not as sharp are down to the original source material and not down to the transfer. However, the times when the image is clean, sharp and detailed are much more plentiful and this means that close-ups can be amazingly finite considering how this movie has looked over the years. There are definite pores on show now, and lashes and facial blemishes etc are picked out with much more clarity. Eyes are clearer too, with Laurie Zimmer's possibly the recipients of some of that colour push. The noise reduction has certainly not stripped away any of the necessary detail that the print held.
Damage to the print is still occasionally in evidence, but this is extremely minimal and the picture is stable and fleck-free for the most part. A couple of the old tears have been all but eradicated, too, proving that Lowry - who also restored the Bond movies - are the people to go to. Grain does fluctuate from time to time, but it isn't hard to get past the sudden transitions from clean to gritty. When Leigh gets shot in the arm down in the cell-block and then takes out the shooter the image does make a sudden nosedive into the stuff, but the scene has always done this, so this is nothing new to worry about. The important thing to remember is that the DNR applied here has not removed anything that didn't need removing, proving that this is still an important tool in disc transfers.
A reassuring 8 out of 10, folks.
Being as sound is one of this film's most crucial and much-adored elements, it would have been criminal to have botched it up. And, thankfully, Image have done a fine job of restoring and presenting both the original mono track and a revamped DTS-HD MA 5.1 alternative. The remix is now an upgrade of the last SD version's DD 5.1 track and, even if it is mainly active across the front speakers, it still has plenty of presence and packs a sonic wallop when it needs to.
The music is the single most emphatic beneficiary of the more aggressive audio. Just listen to that bass-line. Oh my God - WOW! I've loved this score since I was a kid and my wife will tell you just how annoying it can be to have that deep, surging title motif banging out of the stereo in the kitchen when we're trying to eat our meals, but even she remarked how “heavy”, impulsive and downright thrilling it sounded with this audio makeover. I will admit that I cranked up the Onkyo a little to truly savour it, but the score is brought out with vigour, depth and a full range that lets those mesmerising metronomic beats throb and glisten around the soundscape and those soul-piercing sustained high-notes keen across the ceiling.
Dialogue is well-treated by the mix, too. I didn't experience any of the drop-outs or volume dips that have plagued some earlier releases. Even the mono track, which has been restored, sounds relatively consistent and clear. But I tended to stick with the more aggressive 5.1 mix. Gunshots are often terrific. The silenced rounds have that delicious whistle-thunk phut! phut! effect of subdued solidity and the full-on shotgun blasts roar. I will say that the shooting does not necessarily compare to, say, Rambo - I mean you won't feel the air being literally punched-through - but there is still a great evolution that has been made with the bombastics. The film now sounds alive in a way that it never had done before. The various calibre bullets and types of weapon all have their own sound. Admittedly, Bishop's side-arm has a similar boom-boom to Dirty Harry's .44 Magnum, but the 7.62, 5.56 and 9mm variants all have their own keenly heard acoustic signature. A German Mauser makes a great buh-dow-bud-dow! sound as its user is blown back out of a window. The big sniper-rifle has its own echoing resonance too, and the cacophony-montage of our guys blasting merrily away at the end of the big battle will have fire-power-fans residing in hog-heaven! But I have to say that the final explosion still doesn't come anywhere near to rocking the house, unfortunately.
Surround usage is sporadic and, to be honest, never really makes much of an impression. Well, it shouldn't do, should it? The film was mono to begin with and any effect remastered to reach around you won't be genuine. But, although I may have rained on the parade of Dead & Buried's 7.1 DTS-HD and TrueHD lossless revamps, I will admit that a little bit of audio jiggery-pokery might have been more welcome in the case of Assault On Precinct 13. Imagine the scene when the gang take out all the windows - we could certainly have had some ricochets pinging around the place, and the big shoot-out would have benefited from more surround activity. And when our heroes are trapped down in the basement, would it not have been cool to have some rear support to embellish the grim sound of the gang tearing the place apart upstairs? Mind you, the score does receive some bolstering from the rear speakers and there is locational ambience on offer, too. We even get some car engines emanating from back there. Steerage and panning around the set-up isn't overly grand or elaborate, but we do get some directional voices, gunfire and impacts. So, all things considered, this is a pretty respectful revamp that doesn't ruin things with any unnecessary show-boating. It enhances the original material and presents the action and the score with far more vitality than you may have heard it do so before.
My advice is to give the remix a go and to crank it up. The original mono track is an excellent alternative and, naturally, the one that most purists will probably insist on. Great stuff and, as far as I'm concerned, an 8 out of 10.
If I was to complain about anything, it would be the lack of bonus material on offer. Assault On Precinct 13 is very highly regarded by fans and critics alike and the movie shines like a beacon in Carpenter's cannon, so I would have thought that more along the lines of a “making of” or a retrospective look at the film and its impact would have been in order.
Having said that, though, we do get another of Carpenter's excellent commentaries, which goes a long way to setting the scene of film's genesis and the era in which they produced it. Always a fine raconteur, Carpenter offers up plenty of insight into the plot, the characters, the Hawksian theme of bonding under pressure and the shift in style and logistics from making the likes of Dark Star to a bigger picture. There may be a few more lulls in the track than we have gotten used to with the filmmaker, but then he is carrying this without the benefit of someone like Kurt Russell sitting there beside him. A worthwhile track, nonetheless.
Then we have a Q & A session with John Carpenter and Austin Stoker that was filmed at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood in 2002. This lasts for around twenty-three minutes and, predictably, has the lion's share of the talking done by Carpenter. Although poorly filmed, the piece is still quite rewarding. He talks about the innovative use of Panavision and the way he chose to shoot the movie, his preference always for a wide-screen image. We hear about the casting of the film, the strong influence of Howard Hawks upon the characters, the set-up and the hard-bitten dialogue, and the methods and instrumentation of the iconic scoring. A good feature.
A nice touch is Carpenter's magnificent score being isolated on its own track. Now, this will show you just how repetitive the thing actually is. There are three distinctive themes - the main title, Julie's/the Precinct theme and the full-on first wave attack theme - but the hypnotic spell that they capture is staggeringly powerful. However, whilst these isolated score tracks are certainly neat additions and can serve to provide a gateway into an appreciation of movie soundtracks, they are not the way to hear a film score. Unless the composer or some music historians are providing insight in the lulls between tracks, I don't think the experience is ever what the disc creators actually think it should be.
And finally we have some marketing material in the form of posters, trailers and radio spots for the movie.
An absolute, dyed-in-the-wool, bonafide cult classic if ever there was one. Assault, made on a shoestring by a maverick whose talents were, at this stage anyway, unprecedented, took the London Film Festival by storm, catapulting John Carpenter to almost overnight fame. With a lacklustre remake failing to tarnish its iconic reputation, the original battering-ram of a movie still packs a mighty punch. Effortlessly cool, full-to-brimming with oh-so-quotable dialogue and boasting a hyper-stylised, semi-surreal ambience, it remains a remarkably lean yet thoroughly bravura experience. For what it's worth, I still think that Carpenter loses the edge during the final act. But when all that has gone before it is so damn good, this is relatively easy to forgive.
The BD transfer is a good one and certainly enough of an upgrade to have fans finally ditching their earlier copies. The film looks detailed and vibrant and offers the best presentation of that incredible score that you will have heard. Extras-wise, we get nothing new for the BD release, but at least we haven't lost anything either. The commentary from Carpenter is the meat of the matter, but the Interview session offers some nice trivia, as well. A full retrospective making-of would obviously have been appreciated, but c'est la vie.
Just like its magnificently laconic anti-hero, Napoleon Wilson, the film has “moments” - and many of these have become pop-culture gold. A Western in all but the era in which it is set, Assault On Precinct 13 occupies a sacred place in genre fans' hearts. The best thing about it is the fact that it has aged remarkably well and its lean, mean narrative still holds up with energy, wit and a streak of cocksure arrogance that only a filmmaker of Carpenter's original verve could conjure. I've said it numerous times, but I feel compelled to ask again - What happened, John? You were once the best and now ... well, now I dread a new film with your name attached to it. From such achievements in those devil-may-care, halcyon days of unadulterated enthusiasm and passion to ... Village Of The Damned, Vampires and Ghosts Of Mars which, as a futuristic remake of Assault, at least revealed that Carpenter was seeking a way back to his former glory.
Alongside Halloween and The Thing, Assault On Precinct 13 can sit proudly in your Blu-ray collection.
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