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If it ain't broke...
A region 2 DVD review of THE WARRIORS: ULTIMATE DIRECTOR'S CUT by Slarek
 
"There may be the argument that other people will say they
like the other version better. That's fine, I understand that."
Walter Hill – director of The Warriors

 

That's one good thing, at least.

When I recently reviewed Warner Brothers' original DVD release of The Warriors I did so specifically to pre-empt both the upcoming director's cut and Tony Scott's threatened and unwelcome remake. As a film that figured strongly in the viewing habits of my youth, and one that has stood the test of time well as a stylistic action pic, I believed it was important to record in some detail just why I felt this version was so damned good before it becomes obscured by the recut, the remake, and a few internet based put-downs driven by a perceived need to kick against the weight of cult opinion. If you want to check out this review before proceeding, click here, as I see little reason to repeat here what I've already written and I'm likely to make a few references to it later on.

Retrospective director's cuts are a potential mixed blessing. Knowing full well the degree to which studio interference can strangle a director's vision (affecting film-makers as diverse as Alfred Hitchcock and Sam Peckinpah), the prospect of seeing a work restored to how it was originally intended to be seen is, for most film fans, a mouth watering one. That said, all of us are subject to change over time, as experiences, tastes, even beliefs alter with age. No way does a 63-year-old see the world, or even their own work, the same way as they did when he was 27, and returning to a film made 26 years earlier to tinker with its look or structure is inevitably going to be at least partly influenced by how their own sensibilities have been shaped by the intervening years. The resulting recut may thus be enjoyable, but will not always be superior to the original. As evidence I put forward Apocalypse Now Redux. Controversial perhaps, but though I find the restored scenes fascinating in themselves, I do feel they upset the flow of what was once a near perfectly structured narrative.

Walter Hill's 1979 The Warriors is a movie that I firmly believe was never in need of alteration, and before approaching this new version had already experienced how the simple addition of a new opening sequence (added for a BBC TV screening – see the footnote in the review of the original cut for more detail on this) could disturb this delicate balance. I thus greeted the news of an 'Ultimate Director's Cut' with some suspicion but a nonetheless open mind. Who knows? It might work. I see no reason to prolong the suspense here – for my money this recut is probably the cinematic cock-up of the year.

The main issue here is one of shouting what was originally whispered. Anyone who really watched the film would already be well aware of the story's connection with the mythology and history of Ancient Greece. On a subtextual level this works divinely, but to openly suggest that a street gang fighting their way across New York is every bit as heroic as the thousand mile journey of Xenophon and his warriors through enemy territory following the battle of Cunaxa is pushing it a bit. A new prologue consisting of a drawn representation of the battle and scrolling text briefly outlining their epic march home – words read out by what sounds like Hill himself with an air of heroic gravitas that borders on parody – informs us that "Theirs was a story of courage," adding with equally comic gravitas, "This too is a story of courage." Oh is it now? It finishes with the caption, "Sometime in the future," another aspect that viewers and reviewers had already picked up on. We knew all this already, and to be honest anyone who didn't will be as bemused by this sequence as they will be by the newly added comic book frames that precede the movie proper and turn up intermittently throughout.

Ah yes, the comics. Something we also clearly understood without having it spelled out for us in elephantine type was the film's comic book styling. When you have someone spin in the air when they are hit, when you colour co-ordinate your gang costumes, when your Greek chorus (no pun) is the mouth of a black female DJ in huge close-up, when horizontal and diagonal wipes are used in place of cuts or dissolves, when a fight with baseball bats results in not a drop of blood, we KNOW this is comic-book stuff. Just about every (intelligent) review I have read and every fan of the film I know fully understood this, but in the new cut this is shouted from the rooftops through the use of Creepshow-style drawn comic book frames that interrupt the action throughout. Unlike Romero's film, which established this connection in its opening scene and through deliberately stylised lighting and framing (not to mention the explicit connection with the E.C. horror comics that inspired it), here the sequences look tacked on and out of place like the restrospective additions they are. The opening in particular, with its Greek history lesson, drawn comic book frames and live action intro, looks like bits from three separate movies have been nailed together.

Later on the comic frames serve only to state the obvious and fuck up the narrative flow. As four of the Warriors emerge from an in-station chase to be confronted by the intimidating stone statue presence of the Baseball Furies, this once beautiful transition of pace is now rudely interrupted by a re-edit of the action and three drawn comic-book frames that inform us that three of the gang escape (we can see this, thank you), that Ajax is startled enough by something to warrant a "Holy Shit" caption (something James Remar managed perfectly well with facial expression – i.e. acting – the first time round) and a picture of what awaits them with the caption "The Baseball Furies!!!" added, something not a single being on the planet who has seen the film will need to be told. This brief interruption is precisely that, a stuttering break in the editing rhythm that adds absolutely NOTHING to a sequence that worked perfectly well as it originally stood. And I mean perfectly.

Elsewhere the comic-book disruptions are primarily confined to scene transitions, but never resist the opportunity to state the obvious: "Swan, now alone…" pops up over a picture of Swan, you've guessed it, alone, while the arrival at Coney Island in the light of morning is captioned "Morning came…", the dingy light that is crucial in making their home turf seem so unwelcoming now completely lost in the bright comic rendering that precedes it.

Then again, who am I to question the words of someone of Walter Hill's stature and skill? If he says this version is closer to his original intentions then that may well be the case, but if so then this one time I'd say that studio interference did us all a favour in making the first cut available for so long. My reservations about twenty-six-year-later tinkering remain, and to be honest, if you're going to draw a moustache on the Mona Lisa then at least make it a good one. It is possible that these changes will work for some, but general opinion appears to be on the side of NO, and reactions I have witnessed range from groans of disbelief to the banging of heads on tables. The original film is still in there, still largely intact, but the added cinematic graffiti has rendered it a little less lovely.

sound and vision

A quick mention should go to the main menu, in part because of the strange inappropriateness of one element. After a nice "Warriors…come out to play-eee" build-up that all will recognise, the main screen is accompanied not by rips from Barry DeVorzon's score, but some generic chase music of the sort found on Hong Kong actioners. Why?

As with several special edition releases, there has been a fair amount of bollocks talked about the quality of the transfer on the original Warner Brothers DVD release. For the record, it was fine – indeed, the BBC review even cited the quality of the transfer as the main reason for buying it. This being a new cut of the film it has obviously been remastered, and it has to be said that this transfer is even better than the original, with colours, contrast and especially detail very impressive, which is only right for a film that seemed to leap out of the screen at you in the cinema. On sharpness in particular the new print wins.

It should also be noted, however, that Hill has taken this opportunity to reframe some shots and even add a few optical zooms where there previously were none. See the transfer comparison below.

The original cut (above) and the new director's cut (below)

Where the new transfer scores big time over the original is the upgrading of the original's Dolby 2.0 track to 5.1 surround. This is no straight AC3 conversion, either, but a proper remix, adding considerable clarity and dynamism and spreading sound effects and music around the room. Good use is made of the rears and the music sounds better than ever. Full marks here.

extra features

Apart from the brief introduction to the new edition by Walter Hill, there are four detailed featurettes, titled The Beginning (14:07), Battleground (15:25), The Way Home (18:08) and The Phenomenon (15:24). These effectively function as separate chapters of the same retrospective documentary, but add up to over an hour of fascinating interview material with the cast and crew of the film, covering everything from the genesis and casting to the shooting, editing and scoring to the release and surrounding controversy, often in impressive detail. Even if you don't like the new cut then this material is still a must for fans of the film, not least for a chance to see how some of the actors look twenty-six years down the line. I barely recognised Michael Beck or, at first glance, Deborah Van Valkenburgh. The Phenomenon also includes part (though crucially not all) of the original opening shown on some TV prints. Good stuff.

Also included is the theatrical trailer (2:01), which was also on the original DVD release.

summary

I don't see that there's any more to add about the film itself – I've said my piece and still absolutely prefer the film as it was to how it is now. I have no doubt that fans will want to check this cut out anyway, as they should, and just because I don't like it doesn't mean this cut is wrong or right, which is pretty much was Hill says in his intro.

As for the DVD, well if you label your disk as the 'Ultimate Director's Cut' then you are kind of asking for it, as throwing absolutes like 'ultimate' around is always dangerous and promotes impossibly high expectations for the content. On the plus side is the transfer, the soundtrack and the very good documentary material on the film. Hill himself expresses his dislike for the idea of directors explaining their own work, so his involvement in a commentary was always unlikely, but given the warm regard most of those involved still have for the film, it's hard to believe a cast and crew commentary could not have been organised, perhaps even one of each. And what about deleted scenes? We get snippets of that original opening that the film was once aired with, so surely its inclusion should be an essential part of this release. So yes, it's a director's cut and yes, it's a decent enough disk, but with no commentary and no deleted scenes and without the inclusion of the original cut on a second disk, no way does it justify the term 'ultimate'. Warriors fans should check it out, but hang on to that original release – it may well prove to be a precious thing.

The Warriors

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

DVD details
region 2 .
video .
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound .
Dolby Surround 5.1
languages .
English
subtitles .
English
English for the hard of hearing
extras .
Introduction by Walter Hill
4 featurettes
Trailer
distributor .
Paramount
release date
17 October 2005
review posted
26 October 2005

Related review
The Warriors (original cut)

See all of Slarek's reviews