Movies We Like
Through the eyes of movies in the 1970s, New York City looked like one rough place. I don't mean the Woody Allen romantic side of New York (Annie Hall, Manhattan). I'm talking about almost every other film made in the decade, the dark Taxi Driver side. From The Out Of Towners to Death Wish (and most cops and crime flicks), culminating in the apocalyptic Escape From New York, the place appeared to be a dangerous dump. Bottom line: Central Park is not somewhere you want to be caught in after dark. The Warriors is maybe the perfect vision of this comic book wasteland.
The gangs in New York outnumber the cops two to one, so says Cyrus, leader of the baddest (and apparently the biggest) gang in town, The Riffs. This gangsta’ visionary gets all the gangs together in Central Park for a sort of pep rally. But like so many important revolutionaries before him, he is assassinated by a creepy guy named Luther (played by the creepy actor David Patrick Kelly). Luther is able to blame the Warriors, a small-time gang in for the convention from Coney Island, Brooklyn. The Riffs kill the Warriors' leader, Cleon, and put out an APB on the rest of the gang. Suddenly every gang in town is after the remaining eight Warriors. Narrated by a hot-lips radio DJ, the Warriors are forced to fight off gangs, the cops, and negotiate New York's unreliable transportation system.
Apparently The Warriors is a retelling of Homer's The Odyssey (I guess someone was trying to cross lands to get home in that or something). The film is based on a 1965 novel by Sol Yurick of the same name (I would love to read it), though the novel is actually reported to be a retelling of another Greek legend, Anabasis by Xenophon. Whatever the story is a riff on, it has a weight that makes it more than your average '70s exploitation junk.
After Cleon’s death, the Peter Frampton looking Swan (Michael Beck) takes over the leadership role. As they try to reach their home turf the gang is divided - some members are killed, others lost in the vast darkness of Manhattan. The gangs’ most badass member and resident hothead, Ajax (James Remar, a great character actor), takes a break from surviving to try to pick up a lady (future one-hit-wonder, Oscar winner Mercedes Ruehl) on a park bench. It turns out she’s an undercover cop and arrests Ajax for being a jerk. Meanwhile Swan manages to pick up a chick, the mangy Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh of the sitcom Too Close For Comfort). Though they have nothing to say to each other and he seems to almost hate her, she comes along for the ride. Eventually he makes a romantic move and gives her some flowers from the floor of the subway. This passes for romance in the '70s bleak side of New York.
Director Walter Hill, one of the more dependable action directors of the '70s and '80s gets a lot of bang for his buck. The Warriors was a follow up to the Ryan O’Neal stunt-driving flick, The Driver. He would continue his quality streak with The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, and then 48 Hrs. But after that peak, he would be hit or miss, although he did create some fairly memorable B-flicks, including the goofy action-musical Streets Of Fire and the dusty Nick Nolte opus, Extreme Prejudice. Unfortunately the energy of The Warriors seemed to give way to too much sleepy Ry Cooder music in his films and some ambition was never realized. As a producer he's also had some major success - his fingerprints are all over the Alien series.
With The Warriors, Hill was able to take his slower approach to action (there's always a hint of the John Ford American West influence in his work) and infuse it with a cartoon style. Each gang has their own individual look: the Warriors all sport leather vests; the more muscled members go shirtless underneath. One gang has shaved heads. Another gang, The Punks, sport overalls and roller-skates, but most memorable are the Baseball Furies who wear baseball uniforms and KISS style face make-up. Both those last two gangs show that a cool costume is not enough, as the Warriors kick their asses.
On the film's initial release there were over-hyped reports of violence breaking out in theaters. This gave the film an undeserved reputation for ultra violence, but this is not A Clockwork Orange, it's not even Blackboard Jungle or Over The Edge. There is no need for panic here; The Warriors is not to be taken seriously as so many of its irate critics did in its day. The Warriors is overly gaudy - maybe it's even a bit dated and rather silly - but as a stylistic piece of cult pop pulp, it perfectly nails what it set out to be and that's what makes it the B-movie classic it is today.