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The Warriors Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 27, 2007

    The Warriors Review
    “What do you know about Cyrus?”

    “Magic. Whole lotta magic ...”

    As Tina Turner's nasty Aunty Entity says to Mel Gibson's battered road warrior after he recklessly ventured Beyond Thunderdome, “One day, cock of the walk ... the next, a feather duster,” so could have been the fate of 80's action-god Walter Hill's first major feature, The Warriors (1979) - a movie that seemed dated even when it blasted onto home video after controversial theatrical runs on both sides of the Atlantic. Cultish it may be, but the hair, the fashions, the language and the rather naïve attitude of a thousand gang-members all patently too old to be scrapping for turf in the gutters and tenements of a drizzly New York were things that would usually be damning when it came to a film's longevity. When I was a kid, however - what, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, those pivotal years - I was absolutely besotted with this film and would watch it over and over again. I was immune to its innate silliness, its camp aggression. Those sexy waistcoats, adorned with the Colours of our heroes, the outcast and persecuted Warriors, were a symbol of rebellion and the power of youth. I'd have killed for one of them. And the streets of the mid 80's, what with its great Mod revival (in which I flourished ... as a Mod, thank you very much) were, indeed, battlegrounds if you knew where to look and, more importantly, who to antagonise. So it was easy for me and my mates to associate with the knuckle-heads running amok around a virtually deserted Manhattan. Of course, it didn't take long for me to realise just how far removed from reality the film was. But that was of no consequence. It was an urban fairytale, a myth from the streets. It was fast, dynamic and it took no prisoners. It was a classic of style and spirit.

    “What do you know about Cyrus?”

    “He's the one and only ...”

    The thing is, it has been years since I've seen the film. I've had numerous versions of it on tape and disc, but I haven't actually sat down to watch any of them for possibly over a decade - yet still kept buying new editions of it because I felt I had to. Because I felt I owed it to a film that had once meant so much to me. Yet every time I thought about viewing it again, I was struck with the imagery of the big hair and its time period, and personal memories of me and my buddies massing on street corners and in car parks for “rumbles” that, even then, I knew were wrong. All so long ago now. With haunted disillusionment, I would cringe and put the film back on the shelf. But now, dear readers, I thought the time was right to brave the streets of both mine and Walter Hill's yesteryear as his notorious and flamboyant thriller debuted on Blu-ray in its Ultimate Director's Cut.

    And do you know what? Not only has the film retained its status as one of the great macho actioners, but with its new prologue, freshly added “Sometime in the future” setting and additional comic-book style scene-changes, it has regained its dignity and somehow become timeless in the process.


    “Yeah - RIGHT!”

    Based upon the sixties novel of the same name, by Sol Yurick, The Warriors tells of one devastating night when the Manhattan sub-culture gang movement, involving hundreds and hundreds of hardcore members, come together to hear the prophetic words of wisdom from the charismatic and mighty Cyrus (Roger Hill) as he attempts to unite the multitude of disparate and rival clans with a view to taking over the city. Ambitious pipe-dream this may be, but when you control the biggest, meanest and most loyal gang in the land, The Gramercy Riffs, you can stand tall and proud and dictate to the masses like a new messiah. However, things don't go quite according to plan, when poor Cyrus takes a bullet mid-speech and the blame lands upon the heads of Coney Island's finest, The Warriors. Nine strong, these stout-hearted delegates of the boardwalk-based clan lose themselves amongst the chaos of an enraged crowd and seek to escape from the alien turf of the Bronx as cops and fellow gangs close in. Naturally, they are innocent of the murder. And, for a while, it seems that other gangs are just after them because Cyrus's uneasy truce has ended. Though, gradually, as the hunt for them intensifies and traps, like the train-tracks being set on fire, are laid for them, it dawns on the crew that the Riffs want their heads and that Cyrus' dream of a unified gangland has, ironically, come true - as now everybody has banded together to catch the Warriors. This is going to be one hell of a night as every step they take will be in enemy territory and Coney Island is a long, long way off.

    “Who are the Warriors? There must be some word! I want ALL the Warriors! I want them alive, if possible. If not, wasted! But I want them. Send the word!”

    A master of streamlined action-thrillers, Walter Hill is also extremely good at directing large casts. His rosters of characters in this, and the similarly themed Southern Comfort, are male-dominated ensembles that, to some critics, are only sketchily drawn. However, I have never found this to be the case. Here, especially, the Warriors all have deliberate individual traits and distinctive attitudes that bring each one to life. The leader, only in the film for a short time, admittedly, before succumbing to a rain of devastating Riff elbows, has a spirit that makes an indelible imprint on the film, and his foot-soldiers, despite Dorsey Wright's leopard-skin-hooded Cleon's early departure. Michael Beck's war-chief Swan attains the swagger and poise of a lean, mean fighting machine, but he also projects a watchful and protective nature, as well, that makes him the natural next-in-line for group dominance with Cleon out of the picture. The Thing's Thomas Waites (he played bushy-haired Windows) essays The Fox with some neat style, too. Actually the one who witnesses the real murderer taking the shot, Fox is a dependable and forward-thinking second-in-command. Check out his sly negotiating wordplay with the puny Hispanic wannabes, The Orphans. James (Sex And The City) Remar is one of the most memorable members of the gang. His muscular, fist-happy bruiser, Ajax, is heated machismo through and through. Reluctant to run, no matter what the odds, he poses the only threat to Swan's authority. But, when the chips are down and the weaker and slower, more laconic Cowboy (Tom McKitterick) can't run any further, he is not afraid to stand by his comrade and defend him against a circle of much greater numbers, all of whom are armed with baseball bats. Everyone who isn't a Warrior is either a “wimp” or a “fag” in his book, anyway. Other members of this elite brigade of anti-authoritarians include the graffiti specialist Rembrandt (the late Marcelino Sanchez) who steps outside his of vulnerable, slight exterior to paint the gangs' true colours (literally) on the face of an enemy during the big toilet battle, evocative black-Cherokee Cochise (David Harris), Brian Tyler's Molotov cocktail-wearing Snowball and the chick-chasing, tousle-haired Vermin (Terry Michos), whose panicky eyes and nervous smiles add real dimension to their various predicaments.

    “Warriors ... come out to play-eee-yayyy!!”

    The above quotation has, justifiably, gone down in history as one of the coolest and most spine-tingling. Rodent-faced actor David Patrick Kelly has made a career out of playing snidey, slime-coated weasels - see Commando, Dreamscape and Hill's own 48hrs - but as the lethal manipulating leader of The Rogues, and the man holding the smoking gun, his straggly-haired Luther is an extraordinarily crafted villain. Told by his director to adopt a “Richard III” style megalomania and using a perfect blend of ferocity laced with cowardice, Kelly creates what is essentially his most famous character to date. And considering that he has been acting continually for almost thirty years since The Warriors, that is no mean feat. Urchin-visaged and so drenched in character that you can almost smell him, Kelly keeps us, as well as The Warriors, on our toes. Even his motives are mixed-up and nonsensical. But, as he says of his actions, “No reason ... I just like doin' things like that!”

    “Thirty's a lot more than eight.”

    “Not if they're wimps. And I'm sick of this running crap!”

    Instinctively, we know we can trust the Warriors, despite Ajax's volatile loose canon. We just know that this crew wouldn't go around mugging people or torching liquor stores. They have presence, credibility, a rock-solid rep, and they have pride. But, most of all, they have each other. Moving with the co-ordination and tactics of a military unit - a direct umbilical cord linking Hill's concept of a futuristic and surreal New York to the plight and fortitude of a band of Greek mercenaries fighting through Persia over a thousand years before (part of the new-look animated prologue, folks) - they have the wits, do-or-die courage and foolproof camaraderie that will see them through the longest, toughest night of their lives. It is almost as though John Carpenter squeezed all the Warriors into one body and christened it Snake for his equally stylish flight through a Manhattan gone to the dogs in the superior, though still messy, Escape From New York. Fearsome, yet charismatic, outlawed, yet noble, these guys would lay down their lives for one another. It certainly is a bold and exciting romp. Like a rock opera without the singing, The Warriors is a pageant of colour and energy, a riot of stylised violence and twisted metaphor. Sol Yurick's novel disappears beneath a neon-dripping deluge of hyper-real rogues and a murderous miasma of urban abandon. Where the book - as unrealistic in its depiction of gang-culture in the sixties, in my opinion, as the film is with its depiction of that prevailing in the seventies - struggled to make likeable anti-heroes out of the Warriors (or The Family, as they were called in the novel) and was too determined to “observe” the societal reasons for the development of such city-tribes, Hill just uses the visual trappings of the delinquent turf-war fads to propel a story that is purely a chase from start to finish. It doesn't even need to be about gang members. They could be soldiers, cowboys, knights ... they could be any close-knit group of die-hards caught up in hostile territory and just trying to make it back home in one piece. Naturally, we side with the underdogs as they “bop” on through every obstacle thrown at them with wit and energy to spare, and we can never really be in any doubt that The Warriors are the bravest and the best.

    “Sixty thousand soldiers. Now there ain't but twenty thousand police in the whole damn town. Can you dig it? Can you dig it? CAN YOU DIG IT?

    Cyrus teaches the amassed gangs to count.

    It is amusing to note that the counter-culture watchdogs in the US and the UK actually feared this movie when it came out. Riots between rival gangs, who had found that they were sitting in the same cinemas, together, watching it, forced the studios to eventually pull the movie from circulation in America. Distributors, censors and the press here in Blighty were so extremely wary of the controversy surrounding potential copycat strife, painfully recalling the trouble inspired by Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange a few years before, that they missed the message at the escapist core of the film. Nobody wanted to look like the hell-clown, face-painted monstrosities The Baseball Furies or the roller-skating, dungaree-wearing Punks. Nobody wanted to rule the streets - well, only if they could do that and still be home in time for tea and Metal Mickey on the telly - and the gang rivalry and shopping centre warfare already taking place was, in reality, much, much worse than anything depicted in Hill's film, which had a strangely harmless and fantastical view of fist, foot and bat mayhem. Essentially, what the film did was reinforce a belief in the good guys, and that, only through solidarity to your mates, could you endure and survive. In fact, The Warriors would probably have made a better recruiting commercial for the army than any that the MOD put out at the time.

    “You Warriors are good. Real good.”

    “The best.”

    There is sheer genius in having Lynne Thigpen's lush-lipped DJ punctuate the movie with on-the-air updates as to the Warriors' progress through enemy territory, even playing them taunting tracks such as the sly Nowhere To Run from Arnold McCuller even as she, herself, comes to respect those “boppin'” bad boys. But when it comes to lips, the most spectacular pre-Jolie smack-in-the-mush kissers just have to belong to Deborah Van Valkenburgh's trouble-making hooker Mercy who, like a stray cat adopting a new home, ditches the low-level Orphans (“So far down they ain't even on the map!”) and tags along with the hunted Warriors. All she wants is one of their cool vests - “You can get another one, man!” - but Hill allows for some loving down in the spooky subway tunnels in a rare moment when he lets up on the tension. Hill is a man's man and he makes movies for men's men. Women don't really have a place in his pictures, except as sleazy titbits in the corner of the screen - check out poor (but gorgeous) Maria Conchita Alonso in Extreme Prejudice, or Ellen Barkin in Johnny Handsome - but when he does allow them entry into this rough-housing world, they have to play by the rules of the jungle just as much as the guys do. And, with The Warriors, he creates some of the toughest. Mercy, herself, is poor trash and proud of it. Valkenburgh arms her with streetwise sass and a runaway mouth. Romance may be inevitable, but it is tinged with darkness and violence. She may be hot, but she will extract a heavy price for her charms. Just ask The Fox. Then you have the decoy cop played by Mercedes Ruehl, who actually gets the better of the awesome Ajax, but the film offers one of the best examples of female equality when a trio of separated Warriors fall prey to an all-girl gang called The Lizards. Hill's smart move here is that when women act rough in his world, they'd better be prepared to be treated rough, too. Kudos, then, for the terrific slo-mo shot of a heavy chair being shattered in the face of one of the feral pack, and a vicious roundhouse blow taking out another. It is not uncommon to see women embroiled in down and dirty screen-brawling nowadays - Mr. And Mrs. Smith and the Kill Bills etc - but back then, this was dangerous and subversive.

    “When we see the ocean, we figure we're home ... we're safe.”

    “Well, this time you got it wrong.”

    Location shooting is nigh on perfect. Hardly any sets were built for the film - the gents toilets for big door-smashing skirmish was one - and the atmosphere of a ghost-town where such a night of balls-out carnage can take place without much in the way of law enforcement intervening is chillingly conveyed. DOP Andrew Laszlo tones his urban landscape with roads and sidewalks that shimmer with New York rain, casting eerie, otherworldly ambience about the frame. He films the endless running sequences with cameras that race breathlessly alongside the Warriors and their pursuers - the Central Park foot-chase is simply excellent with its low-level tracking shots of the nightmarish Baseball Furies. Barry de Vorzon's soundtrack throbs with early synthesiser mood enhancers, ominous and pulsating. The shock meeting with the bat-wielding Furies stings the air like a horde of hornets swarming for the kill, darkening the comic-book antics with tangible menace. Editing was done by committee in the rush to get the film into theatres before the other big gang production that was about to hit the scene, The Wanderers, but this doesn't have any adverse effect upon the finished movie, which has snap-taut action scenes that are, at once, balletically over-the-top and intricately brutal. A bat-swinging battle takes on samurai pretensions, for example, and the melee with The Punks makes a point of smashing bodies into virtually everything in sight - fists, doors, sinks, toilets and mirrors. Even the fabulous title sequence, charting the various gangs travelling to Cyrus' big pow-wow, is immediately adrenal and provocative - inter-cut, as it is, with cool little asides to introduce the nine elected emissaries from The Warriors. Style ahead of its time, folks.

    “I'll shove that bat up your ass and turn you into a popsicle.”

    Ajax does his bit for inter-gang relations.

    So, to round off all this slavish praise, let me state that Walter Hill's The Warriors, with its mob of mime-artists, baseball-zombies, red-robed Riffs, Technicolor skinheads riding the roof of a spray-painted bus, platoons of pimped-up hoodlums and our bare-chested heroes, themselves, is just as much a carnival of creative chaos as Scorsese's Gangs Of New York, and twice as entertaining. With its shotgun-blast of a plot, the momentum of a rollercoaster and the visceral testosterone of a prototype 300 (its new look and ancient theme now scream this connection in lurid comic-colour), The Warriors can stand proud and “soldier” on through anybody's turf, any day of the week. Age does not affect them and I was wrong to have hidden from the film for so long.

    Very highly recommended.