The Warriors (1979) ***½
Man, this sure took me long enough… When I first started writing 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting, The Warriors was on my project-defining list of movies I would definitely be reviewing one of these days. I saw about the first half of it in the mid-1990’s, when my brother and his girlfriend rented it right before closing time at the local Blockbuster. I hadn’t planned on watching any of it, because I had to leave in less than an hour to drive my own girlfriend back home to Laurel, but I happened to walk through the living room during the opening credits, and the film just hypnotized me. The bizarre costumes, the implausible yet somehow internally consistent imaginary youth culture, the real-world anxieties over crime and urban decay carried to fantastical extremes— it was like director Walter Hill had made a post-apocalypse movie without the apocalypse. Consequently, it was with no little grumbling that I hit the road right after the battle between the titular street gang and the rival Baseball Furies, and I fully intended to watch The Warriors in its entirety on my own the next day. That didn’t happen for one reason or another, and it kept not happening for the next several years, even after the film became one of the fenceposts marking out what I was going to cover on this site. Then that goddamned “Ultimate Director’s Cut” DVD came out— the one with the comic book-style intertitles wedged in all over the place. I don’t know. Maybe the insertions really aren’t such a big deal, but at the time it felt like a dishonest distancing tactic. It felt like Hill had become embarrassed at some point during the ensuing 25 years over The Warriors’ freakish stylization, and was trying to walk it back by over-emphasizing it, if that makes any sense. In any case, the comic booked-up version wasn’t the one I sort-of saw a decade previously. It wasn’t the one that the Great Italian Rip-Off Machine went mad for in the 80’s, cross-fertilizing Hill’s apocalypse-free apocalypse with the genuine “after the end” strain derived from The Road Warrior. It wasn’t the one that so fired the imaginations of punk teenagers around the world that I know of at least four bands whose names are direct references to The Warriors. That was the version I wanted to review, but that was also the one I couldn’t find anymore. Luckily, the cult-friendly programmers at the AFI Silver theater just came through for me. When they screened The Warriors a couple weekends ago, they did it up right, with the cut I would have seen had I bought my ticket in 1979 instead of 2014.
As the 70’s give way to the 80’s, New York is experiencing an unprecedented wave of youth crime and violence. The mafia was one thing, but these new kids carving up the city into mutually warring tribal enclaves represent something much scarier. They’re like a resurgence of primitivism, not even faintly concerned with the civilized matters of commerce and profit that motivate the old mobs. There’s no predicting them, and therefore no controlling them. And damn, but there are a lot of the little bastards. 200 gangs or more with sufficient strength to control a plot of territory big enough to notice, numbering perhaps 60,000 people in all. That’s three times the number of cops in the city, and many times the manpower that the mafia families have at their disposal. If those kids ever got organized…
That’s where Cyrus (Roger Hill) comes in. His outfit, the Gramercy Riffs, is already the biggest and most powerful of the youth gangs, but when he thinks about those 60,000 half-savage teenagers prowling the streets, his dreams grow grand indeed. Eventually, Cyrus spreads a truly radical idea throughout the five boroughs— a general truce in which all the gangs suspend their rivalries and infighting long enough to test the feasibility of those grand dreams. Then, when the gangs of New York have successfully gone some minimally promising length of time without killing each other over the right to roll drunks or to mug cabbies on this or that street corner, Cyrus initiates phase 2 of his scheme. He invites 100 of the city’s gangs to send nine unarmed delegates each to a conclave in the Bronx, where he will lay out his vision of a New York ruled from the streets by a united army of feral youth.
The Warriors are Coney Island’s contribution to the rising tide of barbarism. None of them have ever been out as far as the Bronx before, but their reputation is such that their leader, Cleon (Dorsey Wright), receives an invitation to Cyrus’s summit. To fill out his delegation, Cleon selects his right-hand man, Swan (Michael Beck, from Megaforce and Chiller), his tag artist, Rembrandt (Marcelino Sanchez), and six others: Ajax (James Remar, of Hellraiser: Inferno and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie), Cochise (David Harris, from She-Devils on Wheels and Maniac), Snow (Brian Tyler), Cowboy (Tom McKetterick), Vermin (Terry Michos), and Fox (Thomas G. Waites, from Clan of the Cave Bear and The Thing). All nine of the delegates are a little concerned about walking into a trap; Cyrus may be a charismatic visionary, but trust doesn’t come naturally to guys who make their livings from petty crime. And more importantly, what if one of the gangs between Coney Island and the Bronx doesn’t honor the truce? As it happens, the Warriors are right to worry. Luther (David Patrick Kelly, of Dreamscape and The Crow), leader of the Rogues and complete psycho, has brought a gun to the conclave in contravention of the truce, and he assassinates Cyrus in the middle of his big speech. Then, as if the disorder attendant upon that weren’t enough, the horde of cops who’d been quietly massing around the site of the summit all evening pick that moment to strike. Nor is Luther through making mischief. He frames the Warriors for the shooting (mainly because theirs were the first colors he saw when the time to frame somebody arrived), and the Gramercy Riffs pause long enough in making their getaway to beat Cleon to death.
The remaining eight members of the Warriors’ delegation now have one hell of a challenge on their hands. First, those cops that busted the gang conclave are determined to mop up everyone that got away. Second, the Gramercy Riffs want all the Warriors’ asses, not just Cleon’s. Third, Luther and the Rogues have a strong incentive to eliminate the Warriors, too, lest any of them somehow persuade the Riffs that they’re after the wrong men. But most seriously, the Riffs’ new leader (Dennis Gregory) puts a hit out on the Warriors, disseminated via an overnight radio show whose DJ (the Shaft remake’s Lynn Thigpen) is sympathetic to the cause of pan-hoodlumism. Every gang in the city will be on the hunt, and the surviving Warriors barely know the way back to Coney Island in the first place. Also, on their trek across the hostile city, a bitch does indeed become one of the Warriors’ 99 problems, for a troublemaking girl named Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenberg, from Streets of Fire and Firestarter 2: Rekindled) inexplicably attaches herself to them immediately after inciting her friends in a minor-league gang called the Orphans to attack them. It’s going to be a very busy night.
Any fan of Walter Hill’s later oddball urban action fantasia, Streets of Fire, owes it to themselves to give The Warriors a look. This movie is admittedly very different from that one— most obviously, there are no musical interludes here— but The Warriors nevertheless makes Streets of Fire look not quite so much like it came out of nowhere. Although the setting is explicitly supposed to be real-world New York in what was then the present day, the world of The Warriors has much in common with the later film’s “another time, another place.” The Bombers could just as well have been one of the gangs responding to Cyrus’s call to arms (although they would have stood out a bit by being so much older and whiter than the average here). The crime-loving DJ who keeps the gangs apprised of each other’s progress toward rounding up the Warriors seems of a piece with the later film’s equally crazed notion of a street war for control of a rock singer. And throughout it all, Hill takes the then-common premise of New York as a city in social, moral, and material collapse further, and in a more fanciful direction, than I’ve seen in any other movie not explicitly set in the future (or in Streets of Fire’s slum neverland), resulting in a flavor not meaningfully different from dystopian futurism.
The latter obviously goes some way toward accounting for The Warriors’ influence on Italian post-apocalypse cinema in the following decade. The gantlet run is a strong plot hook for any kind of action picture, and Hill’s hallucinatory carnival of street violence practically dares other filmmakers to try topping it. What better way to do that than by positing a scenario in which the whole world descends to the level of Hill’s New York? Nor were Italian producers or their distributors abroad the least bit bashful about what they were doing. Frequently, they would acknowledge the debt to Hill in their very titles: Warriors of the Wasteland, Warriors of the Apocalypse, Warriors of the Year 2072, 1990: The Bronx Warriors— to say nothing of the similarly numerous We Have Seen the Future, and It Sucks flicks whose titles reference “gladiators” or “barbarians” instead.
The other distinct group to embrace The Warriors with great fervor was, as I’ve said, punk rockers, but their reasons for doing so aren’t as immediately obvious. To understand the appeal, you have to look at who the heroes are in this movie, and what they stand for. Remarkably enough, The Warriors asks us to root for a pack of street thugs, and although it hints in the end that Swan at least is thinking of leaving town and getting away from the youth gang lifestyle, Hill never asserts any direct condemnation of that lifestyle per se. It’s merely that the night’s events have left Swan feeling like he’s had his whole lifetime allotment of action crammed into six or seven hours, which might be too much even for him. The setting, meanwhile, is presented just as the Warriors would see it. Jobs and responsibilities are inconsequential to the point of invisibility. The police are a faceless enemy, nothing more than armed enforcers of stultifying conformity. The handful of “normal” people whom the Warriors encounter on their trek back to Coney Island seem more freakish, inscrutable, and existentially hostile than even the most bizarre of the rival gangs. And the main villain of the piece earns his status by assassinating the would-be leader of a city-wide gang insurgency aimed at toppling the municipal authorities, and replacing them with nothing but glorious chaos. Ordinarily, you’d expect stopping Cyrus to be the hero’s job! Implicit in The Warriors, in other words, is a value system sharply at odds with the mainstream, and which lines up pretty closely with one that has always common in the punk scene, especially in the early days. The desired end result may differ from Cyrus’s (or not), but rare indeed is the punk who has never fantasized like him about razing civilization from the ghettos up, and rebuilding it from scratch according to new principles, consciously chosen and unconstrained by history, custom, or tradition. What’s fascinating is that I can find no indication that Walter Hill set out to make anything more than a rollicking action movie, transposing the kind of story he was used to telling from the Wild West to the Concrete Jungle, and exploiting middle-class fears of an increasingly violent and weird New York to drum up ticket sales. The Warriors is thus a counterculture film that never really meant to be one, beloved by an audience for which it wasn’t really made.