The Warriors (1979)
Director: Walter Hill
Starring: Michael Beck, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, Roger Hill, David Patrick Kelly, James Remar, Dorsey Wright, Brian Tyler, David Harris, Tom McKitterick, Marcelino Sánchez, Terry Michos, Lynne Thigpen, Ginny Ortiz, Mercedes Ruehl
(out of 4)
A film adaptation of the Sol Yurick novel, which is itself a modern retelling of Xenophon’s Anabasis, Walter Hill’s The Warriors is a camp movie with a heart, a comic book featuring real people given license to run around in a futuristic fantasyland. It’s not unlike the classic Star Trek episode Mirror, Mirror, where Kirk and crew have to manage a crisis while wearing colorful uniforms from an alternate universe. That is to say, a movie that features a street gang that looks like painted up mimes wielding baseball bats and Yankee uniforms has to succeed on the strength of its drama and the identification of the audience with its heroes; otherwise it just becomes a live action cartoon featuring funny jackets. Fortunately, Walter Hill uses his third opportunity as director to craft a well made cult film that, while dated and amusingly retro, still connects through colorful characters, good pacing, and the successful execution of certain timeless themes.
Roger Hill plays Cyrus (the younger, if you wish), leader of one of New York City’s biggest gangs, who gathers thousands of gang representatives from all five boroughs to a meeting in Van Cortland Park. Cyrus wants to organize “60,000 soldiers” against the police to take over the city, in a monologue that was destined to be sampled by just about every hip-hop and techno artist in music history. Cyrus’ mistake, of course, is having too much faith in street gangs’ abilities as city administrators, and an anarchist leader of The Rogues (played by David Patrick Kelly) explains it to him in the form of a bullet. Wrongfully blamed for Cyrus’ assassination, the Warriors are singled out by the Gramercy Riffs, who set every gang in the city after them. The Warriors’ only chance of surviving the night is to attempt a katabasis from the Bronx all the way down to Coney Island, their home turf. Gangs are kept updated through occasional broadcasts by a radio DJ (Lynne Thigpen), who informs them of the Warriors’ movements. Led by reluctant hero Swan (Michael Beck, in the Xenophon role), the gang has to prove worthiness of their name by fighting various enemies such as the Orphans (low-class neighborhood hoodlums that are “not in the network”), Turnball ACs (multiracial skinheads), the Furies (aforementioned baseball mimes, who slightly resemble the Droogs from A Clockwork Orange), the Lizzies (a female gang), and finally, the New York City police (treated no differently than any other gang). But Swan’s biggest problem is Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), the low class “tough chick” instigating trouble for the gang, and eventually joining up with them as they board the train for Brooklyn. An interesting aspect of the film is its compete distrust of women. From Mercy to the Lizzies (who aren’t what they appear to be – go ahead and guess) to the undercover policewoman in Central Park (Mercedes Ruehl), the girls of this world ain’t nothin’ but trouble, but the impact of this negative point of view is lessened by the fact that our heroes only get into trouble when they think with their dicks and not with their brains.
Playing another important character in the movie is New York City itself, a ghost town covered in a menacing cloak of darkness. The only life that exists here is that of roving hoodlums, police, and the subway system itself – the lifeblood and the means of escape, pulling everyone along with it at one point or another. The only true sunlight occurs at the end of the film, and it shines on home turf. The Warriors works in its portrayal of gangs as family units, and in its small stylish touches. Take for instance a moment on the train where our new lovebirds Mercy and Swan sit opposite a prom couple; Mercy is embarrassed by her appearance and moves to fix her hair; Swan stops her. She then closes her eyes; when she opens them again, the couple is gone, leaving a bouquet of flowers by the subway doors. Take bad guy Luther’s taunting “Warriors, come out to playyy..” while clanging beer bottles together. When asked why he would shoot a gang leader, he answers “No reason… I just like doin’ stuff like that.” Witness the bizarre militaristic structure of the Riffs, the attention to geographic detail of the city, the eerie atmosphere of an empty Coney Island and Swan’s realization at the film’s end of where his life is at.
Ultimately, the most interesting thing about The Warriors is the circumstances surrounding its creation – the distressed state of the city in the late seventies, the urban decay, the crime and decadence, the roots of the film in Greek literature, even the amusing attempts at censorship of the film after its release. It isn’t the greatest movie of Hill’s career but it’s a solid one, and while the broad portrayal of street gangs as troublesome costume party attendees is exaggerated and unrealistic, it stays afloat by surfing on nostalgia, good performances, and a certain kind of innocence that is difficult to find in today’s jaded cinema.
– Bill Gordon
Note: I insist that you buy the original theatrical version. You can get the Ultimate Directors Cut Blu-Ray or the Ultimate Director’s Cut DVD, but I wouldn’t – in these director’s cuts, Walter Hill throws in bizarre cuts and zooms, freeze-frames, and comic book panels (with thought bubbles, lol). It’s kinda ridiculous and I have no clue why he did it.