Another one of those movies I can watch over and over and never tire of is The Warriors. Like Escape From New York, I’ll stop and watch it every time it’s on TV. I’ve even watched it on Univision. En espanol. In the vein of the recent 300 adaptation, The Warriors is based on another story of a Greek military company overcoming impossible odds, fighting through waves of Persian armies, stranded so far from home.
They’ve been talking for years about a remake directed by Tony Scott but The Warriors is such a time sensitive setting. You couldn’t do a gang movie like this these days because because of how serious that scene has become. You couldn’t paint a guy’s face and label him a Baseball Fury or have gangs of mimes roaming the streets, battling guys in bright jackets called The Moon Runners. If you take those out and replace them with guys from MS-13 then it takes all the fun out of it.
I don’t know where I’m going with this. The Warriors would have been a great comic book and throughout the movie you get the feeling that Walter Hill was going for that. It’s loaded with ridiculous theme gangs but the setting is so gritty and the dialog so tough that it manages to sell itself regardless. It paints a fictional portrait of what happens when the city goes to sleep.
An envoy sent by Cyrus, leader of the biggest, toughest gang in Manhattan, the Gramercy Riffs, requests the attendance of members from all the recognized gangs from all over the city to attend a summit in a park in The Bronx. The Warriors, a small outfit from Coney Island are invited to check it out. The conditions of the summit are 9 guys show up, no weapons, no fighting. When the Warriors arrive, they find themselves in the presence of hundreds, representing dozens of gangs, each sporting their own wild theme to identify each other. Cyrus takes center stage and delivers a charismatic speech suggesting that the truce that is on right now go on indefinitely and each gang unite to build one giant gang that controls the entire city. Cyrus has the gangs whipped up into a frenzy, totally buying his idea until a gunshot rings out, fired from the hands of a greasy freak, that kills Cyrus. Panic erupts and gang members go running in every direction. The Warriors leader, Cleon, leaps in to help Cyrus and in the chaos, the same guy who shot him points out Cleon and fingers him as the killer. Cleon is beaten down and the remaining Warriors beat a hasty retreat while the NYPD raids the park.
In Xenophon’s Anabasis, Cyrus The Younger pulls together a huge army of mercenaries with the intention of overrunning the Persian throne and taking over. However, while deep in Persian territory he’s killed, making his mission moot and leaving a huge number of soldiers stranded behind enemy lines. See any similarities? The Warriors is actually based on a novel by Sol Yurick which is, in turn, based on Anabasis. In spite of the fact that The Warriors only recently seemed to come into greater cult status, escaping its marginal place in VHS collections of the damned, the movie fared quite well during its initial theatrical run no doubt bolstered by the negative publicity the movie received at the hands of the press and city officials. For years I had always wondered if there was any truth to the rumors of gang violence at theatrical showings. I assumed that it was just an urban legend. However, this article seems to suggest otherwise, citing examples. I only wish they cited their sources.
The Warriors has skills when it comes to taking the bite out of something that is, in fact, pretty scary. In the movie, they’re anti-heroes. Tough talking bad-asses from a gang that keeps its nose clean and takes care of its turf but rarely are they painted as the hooligans that they’re really supposed to be. This way, we can sympathize with them and get behind them as they make their way back home. Sure, they suggest to Mercy that they’re going to gang rape her and Ajax looks like he’s going to forcibly surprise a woman in Central Park with sex but it never goes that far. Even the rival gangs, ostensibly the villains of the movie, are painted in an equal shade of gray. The only real bad guys in the movie are The Rogues, specifically their psychotic leader, Luther, who really killed Cyrus.
In one of the movie’s many cool points, the call goes out over a radio station that Cyrus is dead and that The Warriors are looking good for the murder. This gets every gang in the city out on the lookout for them. The Warriors have no choice but to beat it back to Coney on foot or they’ll be beaten down by one of the many gangs looking for them. All they have to do is get to the train and it’s a smooth ride home. Of course, it won’t be that easy. Along the way, they narrowly avoid capture by gangs such as the Turnbull A.C.’s, The Punks and The Furies (represented by initimidating bad guys in kabuki make-up and baseball uniforms). A brief encounter with a lower tier gang, The Orphans, puts The Warriors in the company of a hooker looking for adventure named Mercy plus more gangs until their final encounter with Luther and The Rogues on the beach of the home-turf of Coney.
The Warriors hasn’t really aged well, it’s an artifact of the 70’s but that, in itself, is part of the charm. Some movies can wear their production year on their sleeve and really benefit from it. I guarantee that there has never been a gang in the history on New York City that had some kind of flamboyant getup like The Warriors and their rivals, nor were they of mixed ethnicity, but we’re not really railing for authenticity in this instance. They’re all just elements of a colorful adventure story told from a unique perspective. Had Anabasis been adapted to any other setting, I’m not sure it would have worked so well. The Warriors are cool. Everything they say has a natural rhythm to it. It’s marginal jive that never seems to come across as awkward. There are plenty of writer/directors today who try to do what Hill did with his dialog but actors seems to stumble over their words. Even when Swan suggests that they’re going to have to “bop” their way back to Coney, it’s a natural part of the conversation. Because of this, the movie is loaded with quotable dialog that just about every producer on earth has worked into their hip-hop album.
Photographer Andrew Laszlo also deserves mention for giving the movie another part of its appeal. This is Ed Koch New York. The last gasp of decline until Dinkins turned into Giuliani and the face of the inner city changed forever. For right now, though, the city is a nasty place. Very little of the movie takes place in places that you and I would be familiar with. Unless you live there, these could be considered parts of the outskirts, the places that the tourists don’t go. It’s laced with public apathy, poverty and corrupt cops and the photography of the movie communicates this perfectly. In many of the movies from this time, the city is as much a part of the movie as anything else. I consider New York integral to the stories told in Death Wish, Taxi Driver, Escape From New York (even though it was shot in St. Louis) and The Warriors. However, a city in decline isn’t meant to be taken seriously and there isn’t an underlying social message about the situation of urban youth here. Instead, it’s just window dressing. A grimy, dirty place for desperate youth to make their escape back to familiar territory and it has never looked nastier. Like Escape From New York, The Warriors takes place at night and the entire movie is bathed in a quiet blue, as if the city does sleep, after all.
Ultimately, The Warriors is a careful balance of chemistry that bonds perfectly to create a movie that is greater than the sum of its parts. The snappy dialog would be nothing without the characters that are detailed enough to separate one from the other, nor would it be what it is without the great gangs to challenge The Warriors all the way home, nor would it be the movie that it is had it been set in Boston or Detroit or anywhere else for that matter. All of these pieces come together to create a cohesive package that defines what makes a cult film.
Can you dig it?
Can you dig it?
Caaaaaan youuuuuu dig it???