Cine Outsider header
front page    disc reviews    film reviews    articles    interviews  
"Warriors, come out to play-eee"!
A UK region 2 DVD review of THE WARRIORS by Slarek
 

There are major spoilers towards the end of this review, so
newcomers to the film should proceed with caution.

 

"When you're president of the biggest gang in
the city, you don't have to take any shit."
"Ah, fuck him!"

 

I've never really subscribed to the idea that movies shape behaviour, not on a widespread scale and not exclusive of other influences. But I know full well that sometimes, just occasionally, they do at the very least have an effect on the susceptible. Here are three examples:

  1. Back in the days when Hollywood was king, Clark Gable took of his shirt in Frank Capra's It Happened One Night to reveal a bare chest. The sales of under-vests apparently plummeted across the English-speaking world.
  1. Back in the 1970s, a good friend of mine was visiting a relative on an army base in Germany and became friendly with the medical officer. One evening he dropped in to see him and noticed a weary expression on his face. "It's movie night," the M.O. explained, "and they're showing a kung-fu film." Apparently every time this happened the squaddies emerged from the screening and, fired up by what they had seen, began karate-chopping walls and flagpoles and kicking trees. A kung-fu film on movie night meant an evening of treating broken hands, arms and feet, all self-inflicted.
  1. In 1979 two teenage film students emerged from the cinema, clambered up to the lighting gantry of the TV studio in which they trained, and sprayed a red letter W on the wall in places that most would think impossible to reach. I was one of them. The film we had just seen was Walter Hill's The Warriors.

Ah, The Warriors. Here was a work that was destined for cult status from the moment it hit the cinemas. It arrived in the UK on a wave of controversy following screenings in the US at which fights had broken out between rival gangs, fights that had even, it was alledged, resulted in a number of deaths. Press reaction was divided between condemnations of irresponsibility on the part of the film-makers and open celebration of the film's stylish visuals and breathless action. At the time we thought it was one of the coolest things we'd ever seen.

As the years passed and my critical distance increased, I still had a soft spot for the film, which for a while seemed to fade into the fog of cinematic history. It was rarely discussed, and I can only recall one UK TV screening (in BBC2's Moviedrome slot), while a fresh generation of movie enthusiasts were looking for new things to get excited about. But then some of these new film fans, disillusioned with the more recent Hollywood output, began to rediscover the joys of 1970s American cinema and to talk enthusiastically about what they had found. Among the discoveries was The Warriors. The thing is, they were really excited by it. This was my first inkling that the film had gone from being a moment in movie history to a fully fledged cult favourite. Not that this was reflected in the film's first DVD release, of course. But then, it's possible at this point that even Warner Brothers did not realise how big the film's new following had become.

2005 looks to be a big year for The Warriors. Finally acknowledging its cult film status, Warner are soon to release the director's cut on DVD, a project that the fim's director Walter Hill has been actively involved in. On top of that, Rockstar, producers of the phenomenally successful, amoral and ludicrously addictive Grand Theft Auto video game series, are set to release a game based directly on the film. A quick look at the trailers on the Rockstar site suggests not just that they intend to be faithful to the film's look and feel, but that the game designers are all huge fans themselves. With all this renewed interest in the original, the announcement that it is to become yet another casualty of the Hollywood Remake Machine could not have been more poorly timed, set to hit our screens just as everyone has re-familiarised themselves with the original, allowing the negative comparisons to be even more focused and widespread than usual.

The Warriors was an important movie for director Walter Hill. Having earned industry respect with his scripts for Hicky and Boggs (1972) and The Getaway (also 1972, and directed by Sam Peckinpah), The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1973), The MacKintosh Man (1973) and The Drowning Pool (1975), he made his mark as a director with the stylish brutality of Hard Times (1975) and the existential crime thriller The Driver (1978), but it was The Warriors that really brought him to international attention. It enabled him to tailor his next two studio projects – The Long Riders and Southern Comfort – to his own by then distinctive and Peckinpah-influenced style, before hitting the big time again with 48 Hours and making his mark as a producer and script re-writer with David Giler on a science-fiction project you may just have heard of called Alien. He's made some clunkers since, but he recently directed the pilot of Deadwood, one of the most noted and controversial successes in modern American television.

The premise of The Warriors is, on the surface at least, straightforward enough. On the streets of New York, a general truce is called by the city's largest gang, the Gramersy Riffs, who arrange a meeting in the Bronx to which nine unarmed representatives from all of the key gangs in the city are invited. Here they are addressed by the Riffs' enigmatic leader Cyrus, who suggests that by co-operating instead of fighting they could effectively take over and run the city. But at the height of his speech he is shot dead by the semi-psychotic Luther (a scene-stealingly bonkers turn from David Patrick Kelly), leader of The Renegades. They swiftly plant the blame on unluckily located Warriors leader Cleon, who is instantly killed by the Riffs. Unaware that they have become a target for a city-wide manhunt by police and street gangs alike, the surviving Warriors attempt to dodge and fight their way to the perceived safety of their Coney Island home.

Let's get one thing straight – The Warriors is no gritty portrayal of the New York street gang problem. Its influences are more comic book than social realist, something the opening credits announce with aplomb, as the plot preamble is set up through a series of artificially posed and scripted conversational sound-bites, which are eye-catching intercut with passing subway trains, graffiti-styled credits and shots of a whole range of colourfully dressed gang members making their way to the Big Meeting, all powered along by Barry De Vorzon's driving synth score. This is not drama-documentary, this is cinematic rock and roll.

The comic-book styling extends to all aspects of the film, from the costuming and sometimes ritualistic behaviour of the gangs (the Riffs stand silently in troop-like rows, the Baseball Furies space themselves out at a seemingly measured distance in preparation for conflict) to the celebrated punch-ups, which despite involving everything from fists and feet to baseball bats and chains, never result in a single drop of blood or a visibly broken limb. It was this very issue that prompted some of the more negative reactions to the film, complaints of irresponsibility for suggesting that a whack in the gut from a baseball bat would do no more than temporarily wind its victim. Thus some of those who had berated film-makers in the past for excessive on-screen blood-letting found themselves in the bizarre position of protesting the lack of it here. This complaint seems particularly absurd given the highly choreographed nature of the fights, providing as they do a clear indication of the film's rejection of realism. The encounter with the Baseball Furies in particular sees one gang member punched hard enough to spin him through the air and another thrown a good ten feet by a sharp knee to the face. If this weren't clear enough, a key reason the Furies are beaten by a smaller number of Warriors is that because, in the tradition of kung-fu films (whose star had not yet faded in 1979), the silly buggers stand around and wait for their turn to fight rather than rushing their opponents in force – at one point there are two Warriors beating the crap out of one Baseball Fury while his mates stand in the background looking uselessly on. This is the essence of movie fighting, stylised and choreographed like a Bob Fosse dance sequence, created as much in the camera placement and editing as in the physicality of the performers.

Coming out of nowhere this artificiality may well seem absurd, but having established its credentials in the preceding scenes as a stylised action piece, the film does not just absorb these exaggerations, it revels in them. As a narrative reward, the fight with the Baseball Furies is timed to perfection, following on as it does from a series of set-backs and minor skirmishes and a furious chase through Central Park, in which four Warriors flee a sizeable and murderously determined gang. After 45 minutes of running and outwitting their opponents, this is where the gang members first take a stand, triggered by the mouthy Ajax's proclamation that "I'm sick of running from these wimps." To Ajax just about everyone is a wimp or in danger of "going faggot," a term that both dates the film and tells us something about Ajax's anxiously defended masculinity. It is with no small sense of irony that Hill has him ultimately defeated not in a fist fight with another gang but by a female undercover cop when he allows his animal urges to overide his common sense. In a film in which women always seem to come off second best, it's a notable moment where this is turned completely around on the very gang member most in need of a lesson in sexual politics. Against the Baseball Furies, though, he shows what he is made of, and with the assistance of compadres Swan and Snowball, finally demonstrates just why the Warriors are the ones worthy of their own film.

Viewed in retrospect, the set-up takes some serious swallowing. The gang truce itself is unlikely enough, but Cyrus's plan for city-wide domination is hopelessly naïve, relying as it does on the continued co-operation between fiercely territorial gangs and a complete lack of state and the government intervention – presumably the prospect of National Guard or even the armed forces being sent in is something that hadn't occurred to this supposedly great leader. Later, as they near home ground, Vermin says of Cyrus's plan "What crap that was." He's right, but it doesn't matter – the meeting very effectively kicks off the plot, but it also vividly demonstrates the range and variety of gangs that are out there, adding credibility to the seemingly endless barriers that the Warriors colide with on their long journey home. This is emphasised by their early encounter with street punks The Orphans (whose leader bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Tim Burton) who were not even aware of the Big Meeting in the Bronx, suggesting a sub-level of potential conflict that neither the Warriors nor those hunting them had bargained for.

It has to be said that the Warriors are very much a Hollywood version of a street gang, cast in part for their looks and a little too well fed and groomed to convince as Coney Island punks, their racial mix having more to do with audience demographic than street level harmony. Of their number only Ajax (wonderfully played by James Remar), initial leader Cleon (Dorsey Wright) and the tribally decorated Cochise (David Harris) really look ready to rumble, though as stand-in leader Swan, Michael Beck is suitable sweaty and athletic. The most unlikely member is the young Rembrandt (Marcelino Sánchez), as tough as a stick of celery and on board purely to leave the gang's mark wherever they go, a task that could easily have fallen to someone with better offensive skills.*

There is also a Homeric nobility to the gang that is reflected specifically in Swan's attitude to those they encounter, negotiating safe passage to avoid a fight they may not win, passing almost puritanical judgment on loud-mouthed gang girl Mercy (a sassy turn by Deborah Van Valkenburg) and yet forbidding her Ajax-proposed gang rape, in the process maintaining their moral superiority within the street gang hierarchy. Later, in one of the film's most quietly effective scenes, Swan stops Mercy from absently tidying her hair as the two sit across from their middle-class prom date counterparts on a subway train, wordlessly reminding her (and us) that they should wear their bruises and street-level scruff with pride. As they exit the train, he hands Mercy a dropped flower, a romantic gesture disguised as practicality – "I hate to see anything go to waste." Even the gang's name – The Warriors – with its almost mythic links to clan and tribal fighters of years past, suggests men who are a cut above the street brawlers they essentially are, a fighting force whose battle across town at times recalls Odysseus's heroic travels in Homer's Odyssey. This link is emphasised when three of their number are distracted by a group of seductive sirens, an all-girl lesbian gang known as The Lizzies (one of whom is clearly far more dangerous than any of their would-be victims). A grippingly staged encounter that steadily builds in intensity to the strains of of Genya Ravan's 'Love is a Fire', it nonetheless ends shabbily when the Warriors escape not through their own wit and fighting skills, but because the Lizzies, instead of running after them, crouch behind their single pistol and groan at their poor shooting.

But such lapses are thankfully few and far between. Once you accept Hill's larger-than-reality approach, this is an often electrifying ride in which narrative buttons are repeatedly pushed with a clockmaker's precision. Hill even manages to top the Baseball Furies fight with a brilliantly staged battle in a station toilet and deliver a climactic encounter that is in some ways anti-climactic, and yet still feels just right for this story and these characters; that the us-against-all battle comes down to a simple one-one-one between two warlords seems to define what makes the Warriors who they are – the grubby, twitchy Renegades have no honour, no sense of style and no real purpose, and it is only right that Swan should take on a gun with a knife and win, recalling Toshiro Mifune's sword-against pistol victory in Kurosawa's Yojimbo. As with the gun-weilding samurai in that film, the pistol here is a symbol of dishonour and cowardice, the crutch of a wannabe fighter who is only able to win by cheating his way to victory using superior firepower over traditional fighting skills.

When real justice turns up en masse in the shape of the all-powerful Riffs (who are indeed an intimidating presence), the retribution takes place in the warm glow of daylight and on Warrior turf, at the end of a journey made exclusively in the darkness of night. The Riffs acknowledge the Warriors' achievement respectfully – "You Warriors are good," their leader tells them, "Real good." "The best," Swan replies. By this point, we are in no position to argue.

With the director's cut now waiting in the wings, there is inevitably some speculation over what might be added or removed and how it will effect the film's at-present fine balance. Two examples to the negative have already been provided by an earlier video release and the aforementioned BBC Moviedrome screening. On the UK video release, musical copyright issues prompted the replacement of Arnold McCuller's emotive 'Nowhere to Run' – played as a direct message to the fleeing gang by the DJ who is relaying coded messages on their fate as part of her between-records chatter – with some whiny drivel called 'I am a Warrior', which made no sense at all in the context of the radio announcements that surrounded it (indeed, it actually reversed the intended message). When screened on the BBC, the original song was thankfully reinstated, but a new sequence appeared at the very start, set in daylight and providing a more literal explanation of the plot to come. It featured Cleon exchanging words with his girlfriend and giving a pep talk to his fellow Warriors (in the process introducing each of them and their role on the mission to the audience), plus an exchange between Ajax and Swan that emphasised the former's unhappiness about the whole deal. In some respects this provided the film with day-time bookends for the night-time adventure, but it still feels like a prologue and not part of the film, which did and always should begin with the Coney Island Wonder Wheel at night.

sound and vision

Framed at 1.78:1 and anamorphiclly enhanced, this is, on the whole, a very good transfer. Visually The Warriors was always striking for its use of colour against the blackness of night and this is faithfully reproduced through strong colour reproduction and solid black levels. Detail is often very good. Grain is evident throughout and does vary a little, but much of the time is barely visible unless you slam your nose against the TV screen. There is one shot – as Swan and Mercy emerge from the subway train at Coney Island – where the picture is in a bit of a state, but this could well be an issue with the source print.

The Dolby 2.0 mono track does the job, but if there ever was a film in need of a 5.1 remix then this is it – the canny combination of sourced tracks and de Vorzon's score really needs to thump out of the speakers in a way it doesn't here. One for the director's cut, then. Clarity, though, is fine.

extra features

Only one, the original theatrical trailer (1:51), which is anamorphic, a tad soft, but otherwise in rather good shape. There are a couple of shots not in the film, and it is set to what sounds like a Tangerine Dream score.

summary

It's safe to say that most Warriors fans will already have this disk, but if you haven't then it's a purchase worth considering, as director's cuts don't always turn out to be the best version. I guess in a few weeks we'll know, but no matter what the new cut delivers, for me The Warriors begins at night with the Wonder Wheel and ends with a walk on the beach to Joe Walsh singing 'In the City'. What happens between may well be open to successful re-interpretation, but I'll hang on to my original cut, just in case...



* The original opening scene, restored on its UK TV showing, goes some way to explaining the mix, as the characters are introduced and their purpose in the party outlined by Cleon.

The Warriors

USA 1979
89 mins
director
Walter Hill
starring
Michael Beck
James Remar
Dorsey Wright
Brian Tyler
David Harris
Tom McKetterick
Deborah Van Valkenburgh

DVD details
Region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
languages
English
German
subtitles
English
English for the hearing impaired
Arabic
Bulgarian
Czech
Danish
Dutch
Finnish
German
Hungarian
Icelandic
Norwegian
Polish
Romanian
Swedish
Turkish
extras
Trailer
distributor
Paramunt
review posted
6 September 2005

Related review
The Warriors: Ultimate Director's Cut

See all of Slarek's reviews