The Warriors (1979) - Ultimate Director's Cut dir. Walter Hill
Starring: Michael Beck, James Remar, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, David Patrick Kelly and Roger Hill
By Greg Klymkiw
Damn! This is one spectacular action picture that definitely deserves to be ranked as a classic of the genre. The movie is over thirty-years-old and while falling a few tiny notches below utter perfection, it has not dated at all and still carries the weight and power to dazzle audiences as it did so many years ago. It really is so terrific, I have to urge everyone to see it - preferably on Blu-Ray - before seeing the remake from that proficient, but utterly boneheaded hack Tony Scott.
The story is simple. A visionary New York City crime warlord named Cyrus (Roger Hill) gathers nine reps from one hundred gangs to assemble for a meeting in a Bronx park where he charismatically informs everyone that fighting for turf amongst each other is a losing game. He notes that NYC gang members number 100,000 strong and with only 20,000 policeman to fight crime, they outnumber law enforcement authorities big-time. In this small, but pivotal role, Roger Hill - with his resonant alto-bass voice - whips the masses into a frenzy with his punctuating cries of "Can you dig it?"
Alas, the psycho Luther (brilliantly played by David Patrick Kelly - a pre-Crispin Glover who out-Crispin-Glovers Crispin Glover) assassinates Cyrus and blames the murder on the Coney Island gang called The Warriors. Soon, the nine, stylish and buff young fellas from the wrong side of Brighton Beach find themselves having to get back to their home turf with 100,000 furious gang members thirsting for their blood. As Cyrus ordered everyone to come to the meeting sans-heat, The Warriors are unarmed and need to use brains, animal instinct and their fists to savagely defend themselves and embark on a dangerous odyssey across the city - a city so dark and labyrinthine, they might as well be trying to make their way on foot from Toronto to Timbuktu.
Led by the silent, but deadly Swan (Michael Beck) and the hot-headed Ajax (James Remar), The Warriors encounter some of the most nightmarish gangs imaginable. This is where Hill really succeeds in painting a veritable inferno. This New York City is unlike any New York we have ever seen. Yes, the streets are as rough and dirty as we've seen, but the population at night appears to be solely comprised of cops and gangs. And the gangs are adorned in "colours" (the threads that identify them) that create a kaleidoscopic of fresco of trash fashion and malevolence: the Gramercy Riffs are adorned in bright yellow satin kung-fu jammies and shades, the Lizzies, an all-female gang ooze sex appeal with their trashy, utilitarian garb and, among many other, the Baseball Furies deliver the kind of dazzling nightmare qualities that only the movies can give us as the gang members are outfitted in full baseball regalia, hideously painted faces and wielding heavy-duty baseball bats.
The journey itself is propelled by the gorgeous lips of a female D.J. who sexily spins appropriate tunes to fuel the action of the evening and murmurs threats to the Warriors and updated information to the 100,000 strong looking to take them out.The only slight disappointment here is the otherwise appropriate song "Nowhere to Run" which is, unfortunately, delivered by a pallid cover band instead of the original Martha and the Vandellas. Other than that, though, Barry De Vorzon's pulsating synth-score and Joe Walsh's stirring anthem "In the City", more than make up for the above mentioned musical gaffe.
Andrew Laszlo's cinematography etches a veritable film noir quality, but with dollops of fluorescent light and garish colour. The entire picture, save for the early morning light during the picture's climax, is shot at night where every deep, dark shadow pulsates with the threat of all manner of nastiness.
It's certainly no wonder that "The Warriors" took North American audiences by storm. Boxoffice on the picture sizzled and responses were highly emotional - especially in theatres situated in areas populated by heavy gang activity. This led to actual violence in some cinemas and both the studio and exhibitors across North America, fearing a backlash, idiotically started pulling advertising and even dropping the picture, in spite of its sizzling grosses. This, of course, resulted in numbers that didn't accurately reflect the movie's full potential. As an audience member in the relatively benign (at least in the 70s) city of Winnipeg, I was always amazed at the hugely emotional reaction to the film. People cheered, whistled, and clapped their way through the picture, and even when it ended its run, I remember booking the film in a repertory cinema I programmed - again and again and again. The grosses were stunning long after its first-run. Midnight screenings were especially lucrative and the audiences (gang-affiliated or not) stylishly adorned themselves in the manner of all the gangs in the movie.
"The Warriors" was more than a movie. It was a phenomenon. The kind of thing that doesn't really happen anymore in our world of short-runs, multiplexes and home entertainment.
Directed by Walter Hill, the only real heir apparent to the legendary Sam Peckinpah (Hill wrote the wonderful screenplay adaptation of Jim Thomson's "The Getaway" for Peckinpah), he was, for much of his career, one of the most agile, tough-minded and original directors of exquisite pulp. Hill could direct action scenes with the assuredness of a master, but his real talents were rooted in creating worlds that could ONLY exist on film - delicious never-never-lands that delivered a macho fairy tale quality for little boys of all ages. (Though, if truth be told, my nine-year-old daughter just saw "The Warriors" and was thoroughly dazzled by it.)
With one great action picture after another, Hill took us into almost fantastical worlds on the darkside of human existence. His debut, "Hard Times" lovingly recreated the world of prize-fighting during the depression, "The Driver" dove deeply into a pseudo-existentialist post-Jean-Pierre-Melville-styled world of car thieves and crooked cops, "The Long Riders" was, without question, one of the most evocative renderings of the Jesse James legend, "Southern Comfort" - clearly in "Deliverance" territory - this terrifying thriller followed a group of unarmed National Guardsmen through the Louisiana Bayous as they fend off repeated attacks by slavering psycho Cajun inbreds and finally, the spectacular expressionistic rock and roll phantasmagoria "Streets of Fire" capped a sterling career.
His foray into overtly conventional and commercial cinema delivered the well-directed, but empty-headed "48 Hrs." (and its dreadful sequel "Another 48 Hrs.") and signalled a beginning of the end for Hill. He never quite recovered from this period and his output ranged from dreadful to competent, with a few flawed, but interesting pictures like "Wild Bill", "Johnny Handsome" and "Crossroads".
His one great masterpiece, however, was and still is, "The Warriors". Hill's camera is always where it should be with superb compositions. Each shot is a gem and much like a great cartoon, Hill doesn't hold longer than he has to - he leaves you desperate for more. The editing, while fast-paced and flashy (replete with really cool wipes and dissolves) is, in tandem with the fabulous cinematography, never disorienting and/or sloppy in that contemporary herky-jerky style of contemporary action (usually directed by boneheads like J. J. Abrams or Christopher Nolan who have no talent whatsoever for crafting lean and mean action).
The Blu-Ray and DVD releases of "The Wariors" are presented as a Director's Cut. What this really means, is that Hill was finally able to incorporate comic book panels to bridge all the different movements and locations in the film. While the film lived without these additions for a long time - now that they're there, I can't quite imagine the picture without them.
With all the contemporary comic book film adaptations out there these days, "The Warriors" actually comes closest to recreating a thrilling and delightful comic book style. Not only because of Hill's recent additions, but in his adherence to a never-never-land mise-en-scene.
And the action sequences have seldom been matched. These spectacular set-pieces - replete with Peckinpah styled slow motion - are charged with the kind of fury that great action thrillers MUST have. The battle between the Warriors and the Baseball Furies in a dark, inner-city park with rich green lawns and leafy trees, is still a thing of great beauty and there's a sequence on a subway platform that's both chilling and finally, when the action shifts to a grotty public washroom, the choreography and pyrotechnics are a veritable ballet of visceral violence.
If you've never seen "The Warriors" you are doing yourself a great disservice by not seeing it, especially if your only taste is the remake. If you've seen it before, see it again. My recent helping of the picture was the first time I'd seen it since the 80s and I can assure you, it not only held up, but actually felt fresher, more vibrant and more urgent than ever before.
"The Warriors" is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Paramount Home Video.