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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Review: The Warriors (1979)

* * *

Director: Walter Hill
Starring: Michael Beck, James Remar, Deborah Van Valkenburgh

Can yooooou dig it? Some movies are so ridiculous that they reach the level of the sublime. Walter Hill’s The Warriors crosses from the ridiculous to the sublime before it even finishes its opening credits. A film about New York street gangs in which one of the first gangs introduced dresses like mimes, The Warriors is all style without any serious attempt to ground it in realism beyond the fact that it’s set in a real city. While it’s no mystery why the film received such a cold reception from critics at the time of its release, it's also easy to see why it has been embraced as a cult classic in the years since. The Warriors is one of the most purely entertaining films you will ever see.

The film wastes no time in getting to its setup. Cyrus (Roger Hill), the leader of the most powerful gang in New York, calls a meeting of all the New York area’s biggest gangs in order to propose that the gangs enter into a truce that will allow them to concentrate their collective forces against the police and take over New York. Just as his speech is getting started, however, he’s shot by Luther (David Patrick Kelly), leader of the Rogues, and in the chaos that ensues as the police bear down on the meeting place, Luther successfully places the blame on the Warriors, represented at the meeting by Cleon (Dorsey Wright), Swan (Michael Beck), Ajax (James Remar), Fox (Thomas G. Waites), Vermin (Terry Michos), Cochise (David Harris), Rembrandt (Marcelino Sanchez), Snow (Brian Tyler), and Cowboy (Tom McKitterick). Cleon is swarmed and beaten by the members of Cyrus’ gang, while the rest of the Warriors escape and begin plotting their long journey back to Coney Island, having to pass through the territories of several other gangs while also dealing with the internal drama stemming from a power struggle between Swan and Ajax.

After becoming stranded in the Bronx, the Warriors have a confrontation with a low level gang called the Orphans, which ends with the Warriors destroying a car with a Molotov cocktail and taking a not-unwilling hostage in the form of Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh). When the gang encounters the police at the next train station, only three – Vermin, Cochise and Rembrandt – make it onto the train, while Fox is tossed onto the tracks in a fight with a police officer, and Swan, Ajax, Snow and Cowboy end up in Riverside Park, where they get into a fight with the Baseball Furies, a gang whose signature look is Yankees-style uniforms and fully painted faces, and who fare as well in a fight as a description of their “look” would suggest. Events result in Ajax getting arrested and Swan separating from Snow and Cowboy and reuniting with Mercy, and the now three groups (Swan and Mercy, Snow and Cowboy, and Vermin, Cochise and Rembrandt) continue to fight their way back to Coney Island as every other gang in New York, but particularly the Rogues, continue to pursue them.

As directed by Hill, The Warriors is a film with a great deal of visual flourish, heavily stylized violence, and a propulsive forward momentum. That it was adapted as a video game in 2005 is little surprise, because it basically already is one. The film quickly sets up its premise and then lets the characters loose, having the Warriors fight their way home one “level” at a time, encountering various adversaries until they finally get to their big showdown. What happens to the individual members of the Warriors doesn’t really matter – none of the characters is afforded much in terms of a personality and even Swan, ostensibly the “hero” of the film, isn’t distinct from any other member of the gang once you give the film even the smallest bit of scrutiny – all that matters is that some formation of the increasingly battle-scarred gang gets from Point A to Point B, and that several sequences of ballet-like carnage occur in between.

I have no idea how The Warriors played to audiences in 1979 (I’m amused to learn that the film apparently found a fan in Ronald Reagan), but watching it today is to see something that plays as pure camp. The “gangs” and their members are less figures that intimidate and frighten and more figures reminiscent of the Jets and Sharks in West Side Story or the dancers in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video, their sartorial choices alone making it impossible to take them seriously as street thugs. All of this is part of the film’s appeal, though, and makes it one of those movie that is perfect to watch with a light heart and a group of people in a similar frame of mind. The Warriors isn’t a serious movie. It’s not a movie that will change your life or make you think about things in a different way, but it is an enormously entertaining piece of work.

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