|Walter Hill's cult classic The Warriors is a highly stylized gangland fantasy. Although it bore a great deal of criticism and accusation of causing real-life violence when it was first released in 1979, The Warriors has little or no connection to reality. The new “director’s cut” on DVD emphasizes this even more than the original theatrical version by reinserting a title card that places the story in the near future and using gaudy comic-book panels instead of simple wipes to transition between sequences. Ultimately, it is a shameless, but entertaining, ode to the appeal of criminality and gangland camaraderie, A Clockwork Orange without the intellectual and moral baggage.|
The movie takes place over one night in New York City. It opens with an enormous rally in the Bronx attended by all the major New York gangs. This meeting has been organized by Cyrus (Roger Hill), the legendary leader of the biggest gang in the city, the Gramercy Riffs. Cyrus makes a grand speech about the need for all the gangs to come together in one large army to take over the city. In the process, he is assassinated by Luther (David Patrick Kelly), the leader of the Rouges, who then pins the blame on the titular gang, The Warriors.
The rally erupts into pandemonium after Cyrus is killed and hundreds of police suddenly appear. The leader of The Warriors, Cleon (Dorsey Wright), is taken down by the police, so it is up to the next-in-command, Swan (Michael Beck), to lead to remaining seven unarmed members of the gang through 27 miles of hostile territory back to their home base in Coney Island. The Gramercy Riffs find out that The Warriors have been fingered as Cyrus' assassin, so they quickly put word out on the street that they should be captured dead or alive (the major medium of communication appears to be a radio D.J. played by Lynne Thigpen, who keeps all the gang members up to date with what is happening on the street while spinning records).
Thus, the majority of The Warriors takes place as a journey. The screenplay by David Shaber and Walter Hill was based on a novel by Sol Yurick, which in turn was supposedly based on the Greek historian Xenophon's Anabasis (the director’s cut makes this explicit with a brieft prologue that connects the story to ancient Greece). So, The Warriors' hasty all-night trip through the many boroughs of New York becomes a late-1970s urban updating of the retreat in 401 B.C. of Xenophon and his army from Persia, in which they found themselves with few provisions and severely outnumbered deep in enemy territory (Xenophon had originally traveled to Persia to help Cyrus the Younger dethrone Artaxerxes II, then king of Persia).
Like Xenophon and his troops, throughout the journey, the unarmed Warriors are faced with numerous obstacles and conflicts, some of which are with the police and some of which are with other gangs. The Warriors is justifiably infamous for its cornucopia of bizarrely stylized and humorously named gangs, ranging from the Turnball A.C.s, a group of skinheads who careen about the city in an old school bus, to the Baseball Furies, a group outfitted in baseball uniforms and painted faces who swing baseball bats, to the Punks, a group wearing overalls whose leader cruises the subway stations on roller skates. The Warriors, by comparison, are fairly bland, as they are branded only by their red leather vests. One of the interesting things about the gangs in The Warriors (and one of the early tips that the movie has no relation to reality) is that none of the gangs are racially based. All of them incorporate members of various races; even the Gramercy Riffs, who are predominantly black, still have a few white faces.
Starring in The Warriors didn't do much for the actors involved, most of whom have gone on to successful, if mostly undistinguished, careers in supporting roles and TV movies. Michael Beck is generally solid in the lead role as Swan, and Deborah Van Valkenburgh does a good job as Mercy, a rival gang's girlfriend who ends up following The Warriors back to Coney Island. The role of Mercy could have been irritating, by Van Valenburgh turns her into one of the most fully formed characters in a movie that is dominated by comic-book outrageousness.
The movie has been rightly praised for its stylish photography by Andrew Laszlo and for Hill's creative direction. Hill, in one of his first stints in the director's chair (he would later direct one of the biggest hits of the early 1980s, 48 Hrs.), incorporates carefully orchestrated street fights that get better and better with each viewing. Compared to the balletic montages of Sam Peckinpah, the fight scenes in The Warriors are well-staged and expertly filmed, combining almost dance-like tough-guy choreography and limited, but effective, use of slow motion. Many viewers like the baseball-bat fight between The Warriors and The Baseball Furies the best, but I feel that the bathroom duel between The Warriors and the Punks is superior in the way it uses a closed space to heighten the impact.
Of course, as mentioned earlier, The Warriors took a great deal of heat when several gang-related murders were linked to its release (in one case, it was later brought out during a trial that one of the murderers couldn't have been inspired by the movie because he had drunkenly slept through it!). Viewing the movie more than 25 years later, it is hard to see what all the fuss was about. The Warriors is violent, yes, but in a cartoonish kind of way that makes it hard to take seriously. Seen now, The Warriors looks more like the inspiration for Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video than a call to gang violence. Perhaps it is best that the fury surrounding the movie has subsided, for now it can be enjoyed for what it is: a fast-paced, entertaining, if ultimate banal action movie with a lot of style and nerve.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (2.5)
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