Should I Watch..? 'The Warriors'
What's the big deal?
The Warriors is a action drama film released in 1979 and is based on the 1965 novel of the same name by Sol Yurick. Directed by Walter Hill, the film is set in one night in New York and sees members of a gang pursued by their murderous rivals on a desperate chase through the city. The film's ensemble cast features Michael Beck, James Remar, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, Marcelino Sanchez, Brian Tyler, David Patrick Kelly and Lynne Thigpen. The film's depiction of gang life in New York proved controversial as a number of violent incidents linked to the screening occured in theatres in the US. The film initially received a negative reaction from critics who derided the film as unrealistic and poorly written. The film would go on to earn a mere $22.5 million worldwide (although this was still far in excess of the film's budget) but has since become a cult classic, spawning video-game tie-ins and a comic book series. It remains a stable part of pop culture and rumours persist of a possible remake.
What's it about?
New York in the late Seventies is a gangster's paradise with the city carved up into various territories although frequent rivalries prevent them from taking over the city altogether, despite outnumbered the police in the city. Cyrus - the leader of the most powerful gang in the city, the Gramercy Riffs - calls for a midnight summit of all the gangs at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Each gang's representative must be unarmed and no more than nine from each gang can attend. One such gang is The Warriors, based in Coney Island and led by co-founders Cleon and Vermin, who attend the meeting to hear Cyrus' message.
He announces a plan for all gangs to put a ceasefire into place in order to seize control of the city from the authorities, a plan which goes down well with everyone in attendance. Suddenly, a mystery assassin shoots Cyrus dead while he's on stage and amid the confusion, the police turn up to arrest everyone. As everyone scrambles from the scene, Cleon is framed for the murder and the new leader of the Riffs issues a hit on the Warriors via the local radio station. Stuck some 30 miles from the safety of their own territory, the Warriors begin the long journey back with the rest of the gangs in hot pursuit.
Deborah Van Valkenburgh
David Patrick Kelly
David Shaber & Walter Hill*
Release Date (UK)
10th May, 1979
15 (2005 re-rating)
Action, Crime, Thriller
What's to like?
Viewed today, it's easy to dismiss The Warriors as a camp product of its time with about as much gritty realism as Sesame Street. But strangely, the film is reminiscent of an epic war film with tales of soldiers stuck behind enemy lines and coming under constant fire. The movie has a relentless pace with little time to catch your breath and the violence feels raw and dangerous. Take the scene when the Warriors run into the paths of the Baseball Furies, the baseball bat-wielding gang who look like extras in a bad Broadway musical. At first, the scene is comical because the Furies are unlike anything we've seen before. But when battle commences, it becomes gripping because these clowns are clearly psychotic.
But in spite of the film taking a more West Side Story approach to depicting gang violence as opposed to Gangs Of New York, there is something compelling about these urban kids not just engaging in a fight for their survival but the inherent tragedy when it appears that not all of them will make it. The inexperienced cast do a great job of bringing a sense of realism to proceedings, reacting and raising the tension each time Thigpen's lascivious lips approach the microphone and comment on their progress. Hill's direction feels as stripped back as possible, content to follow these desperate heroes but never dwelling for too long on their wasted youth and never convincing us that they are particularly anti-social or even criminal.
- The film's signature line from Kelly as the villainous Luther -"Waaarriors! Come out to plaaaay!" - was improvised by Kelly on set during the shoot and was apparently based on an intimidating neighbours of his.
- Thomas G. Waites was uncredited for his performance as Fox after he and director Hill had a serious falling out. The argument was so serious that Hill insisted his stunt coordinator Craig Baxley improvise a death scene for Fox. Baxley recalled that Hill told him "I don't give a **** how you kill him. Kill him!"
- In the original script, Vermin was to have been killed by another gang but Michos worked hard to make the character more comic and therefore more memorable in order to get more screen time. The tactic worked - the script was changed and Michos would go on to become a local news anchor in the New York area when he retired from acting.
- A real gang based in Coney Island called the Homicides apparently did not approve of fictional gangs wearing colours on their turf. The wardrobe department made sure no cast member wandered off set in their costume but this didn't prevent numerous incidents occurring during the shoot including crew members getting sent death threats and expensive equipment getting destroyed by a real gang one lunch time.
What's not to like?
Having said that, the film simply wouldn't be the same if it were remade today. There's a cheeky sense of fun behind proceedings with every gang in the city having some kind of theme from the aforementioned Baseball Furies to the all-girl Lizzies and the waistcoat-sporting Boppers. It might seem more reminiscent of professional wrestling gimmicks than actual gangs but it makes the action more palatable somehow as well as helping the audience instantly identify character's affiliations. It's quite apparent that the film is not meant to be taken seriously, thanks to the ridiculous over-use of costumes and the film's slightly camp nature.
In some ways, The Warriors actually feels as stranded as its unfortunate protagonists. It is stuck halfway between being a serious urban thriller and a slightly silly parody of such. Of course, the film is also a snapshot of a specific point in time and the fashions and hairstyles on display feel about as contemporary as a hoop-and-stick. Questionable fashions aside, the movie doesn't really put much of a foot wrong. It was far more interesting and exciting than I was anticipating and I love it when a film surprises me in a good way. Who doesn't?
Should I watch it?
It's coarse and rough around the edges but The Warriors is a surprisingly enjoyable and tense chase around the seedy streets and subways of New York. Despite the silliness in places, there feels a strange authenticity that is barely believable. But the best thing about the film is that it proves that storytelling and filmmaking technique can prevail in the absence of explosions, big budgets and repetitive action sequences.
Great For: face-painting Goth rockers, Halloween costumes, Broadway backing dancers, 70s revival nights
Not So Great For: actual gangs in New York, Coney Island carnies, anyone expecting a gritty or realistic drama
What else should I watch?
It's actually difficult to know what to compare The Warriors to besides other films from Walter Hill. Probably the closest comparison is Southern Comfort, Hill's Cajun-flavoured action thriller that saw a group of soldiers chased through the swamps of Louisiana. Hill's most successful movies would come later in his career with hits like 48 Hrs., the 1985 version of Brewster's Millions and the Arnie vehicle Red Heat. However, his last two movies have been far from excellent - Bullet To The Head was a profoundly disappointing action flick with an increasingly old Sylvester Stallone in the lead while the astonishingly ham-fisted The Assignment runs roughshod over themes of gender identity and sexuality to settle for being possibly one of the most ill-conceived B-movies Hollywood has produced for many years.
Of course, Hollywood loves a good 'gang' movie - whether it's the romanticised musical West Side Story (which is getting a remake courtesy of Steven Spielberg later in 2020), the timeless Marlon Brando vehicle The Wild One, the gritty realism of Training Day or the more comedic Don't Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood. More recently, Adam Sandler took everyone by surprise after his career-reviving performance in Uncut Gems in which he plays a gambling addict attempting to retrieve a valuable gem in order to pay off his debts before he meets an unfortunate end. The film was selected as one of the best of 2019 and many praising Sandler's performance as the best of his career.
© 2020 Benjamin Cox