4.28.2012

The 500th Review: The Warriors (1979)

DIRECTED BY
Walter Hill

STARRING
Michael Beck - Swan
James Remar - Ajax
Dorsey Wright - Cleon
Brian Tyler - Snow
David Harris - Cochise
Tom McKitterick - Cowboy
Thomas G. Waites - Fox
Marcelino Sanchez - Rembrandt
Deborah Van Valkenburgh - Mercy
Roger Hill - Cyrus
David Patrick Kelly - Luther
Lynne Thigpen - D.J.


Genre - Cult/Action/Adventure/Crime/Drama

Running Time - 93 Minutes


Well it's finally here - my 500th review since I started blogging in 2006. That's a lot of words, a lot of time, and a lot of great support by all of you who continue to read, comment, like, and share my posts. Always appreciated.

For this review, I wanted to finally discuss a movie that I have been wanting to talk about for years now. It's one of my favorite films - a film I still believe was misunderstood at the time but appreciated now by the pop culture with its comic books and video games adaptations. It's a film, in my opinion, epitomizes how a cult film is defined. It's definitely a film that not everyone will like, but I feel was way ahead of its time. That film is THE WARRIORS. Can you dig it?

PLOT
In a distant future in the crime-filled city of New York, all the New York City gangs have gathered to The Bronx to listen to Cyrus (Roger Hill), the leader of the most powerful and respected gang in the region - The Gramercy Riffs. At this meeting, Cyrus commands the gang-filled audience, wanting a truce between all the gangs. Cyrus feels that combining forces could help each of them grab a piece of the city, with no cops being able to stop them. While the crowd cheers in agreement, Luther (David Patrick Kelly), leader of The Rogues, decides to fatally shoot Cyrus.

The gunshot alerts the police, who are dying to get their hands on some gang members. As the gang members get away from the chaotic area, Luther frames The Warriors for Cyrus' death. Hearing this, other gang members begin to chase after The Warriors. In an unfamiliar place with so many people against them for something they didn't do, The Warriors must find their way back to Coney Island - hopefully alive.

REVIEW

THE WARRIORS is one of those films that may not be technically perfect in terms of cinema, but puts a smile on my face anytime I watch. It's kind of campy. The oddball group of gangs are memorable. The dialogue is quotable and quite silly. And the fight and action sequences are very charming in an exploitative sort of way. It may not be CITIZEN KANE, but I could care less about Rosebud at this point. THE WARRIORS want to come out and play-ay...

THE WARRIORS was originally a novel written by Sol Yurick in 1965 about gang life in New York City, which at the time wasn't the most fun or safest place on earth. Yurick was inspired by the Greek tale of Xenophon's Anabasis, which is about 10,000 Greek mercenaries who were stuck in Persia after the death of Cyrus, the leader of an army these mercenaries had defeated. The mercenaries' leader, Xenophon, led his troops through enemy territory in order to reach the safety of the sea.

THE WARRIORS follows this narrative pretty close, creating a dangerous adventure that not all The Warriors manage to survive or succeed. That being said, the narrative is very simplistic and could turn off those looking for something with more depth, storyline-wise. THE WARRIORS is a "chase movie" on the surface, with the characters mainly walking, running, fighting, and getting into subway cars to escape peril. I know people who find this boring and wish the film was more than just gang members walking and fighting each other, but they obviously can't see beneath the surface that THE WARRIORS isn't really about the simple story. It's about the things around it that enhance the story that make it the classic it is today.

THE WARRIORS greatest feature is its characters. The names of some of the characters represent either their personalities, or come from mythology of some sort to give you an idea on who these people are. Without their names, or even their appearance, you wouldn't know much about these people since we don't get any backstory or any explanation as to why the future looks this way and how these characters got to the place they're in socially.

Obviously Cyrus was taken from Xenaphon's Anabasis as the leader who was murdered to trigger the chase narrative. He's the leader of the biggest gang in New York City - a man who wants to bring all the gangs together in a peaceful manner in order to achieve a complete takeover of the city from the police who want to stop them. In a way, he's a mix of both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X - having a logical vision that will help everyone involved get what they want. Unfortunately, he's killed and his death triggers the events of the film.

The members of The Warriors also have names that reflect their characters somewhat. The group's leader, Cleon, is named after someone from Greek history - a man who was against the Greek aristocracy. This explains why he agrees with Cyrus' vision - the only way his group will gain power is by joining others and overthrowing those in charge who are against each and every one of them.

Cochise, obviously named after a very famous war chief of the Apache tribe, dresses as a Native American and is one of the gang's best fighters. Cochise is translated as having "the strength of an oak" - which Cochise displays quite well.

We have Swan, who becomes the group's leader after Cleon. His name represents several things. For one, Swan is probably the most handsome member of the group, as the swan is considered a bird of beauty and grace. The swan is also considered the bird of the underworld, which makes sense due to the expression "swan song" used when something is finalized. Not surprisingly, Swan is the one who leads his gang out of the darkness and back to Coney Island, where there's sunshine and tranquility.

We also have Ajax, a name taken from Homer's The Iliad. While not having much in common with that character, Ajax is impulsive and a loose cannon. Rembrandt is obviously named after a Renaissance painter. And his name reflects the fact that he's the sensitive one of the group and the gang's graffiti artist, tagging the gang's name all over the place. Fox is the smart, sly one who tries to get the gang out of dangerous situations. Unfortunately, this leads to his own death [something I'll get to shortly]. We also Snow, who's the laid back and cool member.

And then there's Mercy, a former member of The Orphans who gets taken in by The Warriors after she follows them and helps them get back home. Mercy is an interesting character, especially when it comes to her name. She picks on The Warriors at the beginning, trying to instigate a battle between her gang [The Orphans] and The Warriors. When The Warriors want none of it, Mercy follows them, possibly sensing the code of honor within the gang and wanting to be a part of that [or something in general]. She sees the group as her way to move up in status within this society. Even though she's a nuisance and gets the gang members in more trouble than not, The Warriors are still willing to deal with her and protect her. In a way, The Warriors grant Mercy "mercy", eventually bringing her into the fold when she proves her loyalty to them. While there are other female characters in the film, Mercy is given the most depth and has one of the more interesting character arcs in the film.

Since we don't know any of the characters' backgrounds, we get to know them through their actions during the film. We watch Snow and Ajax argue over how to proceed with their escape. Snow wants to do it as quietly and calmly as possible, while Ajax wants to fight his way through. It's obvious from this who manages to make it to their destination. Women in the film also give away to good character development. Like in a lot of stories dealing with mythology, women are considered seductive and dangerous, luring men with the idea of sex and love that only leads to their doom at the end. Fox's exit is due to protecting Mercy. Ajax's exit is due to trying to force himself on a woman in a park, who just happens to be an undercover cop. And several of The Warriors are taken in by an all-female gang called The Lizzies, seducing them into a fun night involving making out, drinks, and music. Only one of them, Rembrandt, isn't interested in any of it - implying that Rembrandt may be a homosexual [even Ajax calls him out on it once in jest earlier in the film]. Also, when the group is in trouble, they all have each other's backs, even while separated. They're obviously a family and it shows during the film.

The other gangs, while not as focused on The Warriors, are all memorable due to their different appearances. The Lizzies are the female gang. The Baseball Furies are dressed in baseball uniforms, have face paint in the design of a baseball, and use baseball bats as a weapon. The Rogues, led by Luther, are the troublemakers and the instigators - the natural enemies of The Warriors. The Gramercy Riffs are the biggest gang, with like 100 members who seem to know karate and take no prisoners. They lead the other gangs around, rather than doing the work themselves. The Orphans are the lower class gang, who are outsiders and not even invited to the huge gang meeting earlier in the film. They're not respected by other gangs and treated as afterthoughts. The Hi-Hats are dressed like mimes. The Punks battle while wearing roller skates and overalls. They also have the best action sequence in a subway restroom against The Warriors and Mercy. There are other gangs as well, as the film is filled with colorful characters you'd want to know more of.

The greatest character in the film is obviously New York City itself. The first shot of the film is the Wonder Wheel - Coney Island's famous ferris wheel. We get sequences involving the subway, which were grimy, dirty, and all graffiti-ed up back in the day. We get shots of areas in The Bronx and in Brooklyn. 1970s New York City was a very dangerous place, which would probably surprise younger New Yorkers or tourists who see a cleaner and brighter looking city. It creates a ton of atmosphere and danger to the story, because this New York is a very unpredictable place. In many scenes, there are no characters other than The Warriors around, making the city look deserted when it's usually the opposite. When the city is on display, it's used to enhance the mood and tone of the story and film in a positive way. I think if THE WARRIORS was filmed in a different city, it wouldn't really feel the same.

The music in THE WARRIORS is great. We get the classic synth score by Barry De Vorzon. We get the classic "In The City" by Joe Walsh. We also get a cover of "No Where To Run" performed by Arnold McCuller. The D.J. in the film, who also acts like the film's narrator somewhat, plays some great jams on her station. Wish I could say that about radio these days...

The direction by Walter Hill is fantastic. Hill creates a futuristic world [that doesn't look futuristic at all] with a ton of style and a hint of surrealism. In the Director's Cut, Hill added comic book style transitions to give the film a graphic novel feel he wanted right at the start, but couldn't due to budget restrictions. While a lot of people felt this shouldn't have been added to what was considered a good movie, I think it actually enhances the fantasy of the story, making THE WARRIORS feel more special and unique than it already was. The cinematography by Andre Laszlo is beautiful, giving the film's visual life through its framing, composition, and even colors. The way the film is lit is great, as THE WARRIORS mainly takes place during the night time - yet everything is still vivid, as if the film is trying to say that you can always find a bit of light in a shroud of darkness.

Hill also has a great hand at creating some nice tension and urgency through the action sequences and the drama that unfolds. This could have been just a film about gangs trying to kill each other for whatever reason. But through Hill's story and vision, THE WARRIORS is really a tale of self-discovery and realizing that there's something more out there if they're willing to step back and look for it. Through editing and perfect pacing [separating the thrills and the quieter moments well], Hill allows the audience to watch the members of The Warriors to grow and mature. It's just a great feature and one of Hill's best, if not THE best.

The acting in THE WARRIORS won't garner any sort of awards anytime soon. But it's more than decent and the actors don't distract from the film at all. In fact, most of the acting is campy and entertaining. Some do stand out, however. Like Michael Beck, who is excellent as Swan - The Warriors' leader. He's subtle and quiet in the role, possessing a calmness that contrasts with the more animated and aggressive performances that surround him. Beck gives Swan an aura of mystery that's intriguing, and I like that. On the flip side, James Remar is great as Ajax. Remar goes all out as Ajax, creating an arrogant, aggressive, and explosive character who feels he should lead the group. Remar gets some of the best lines in the film, alienating his fellow peers and anyone else who will listen. Out of everyone in the film, Remar would later have the more profiled acting career. It's easy to see why judging by his electric performance here. Deborah Valkenburg is also great as Mercy. On paper, Valkenberg's character has the most development, but she adds more depth through her acting. This could have been a very annoying character depending on who was playing her. But Valkenberg has sex appeal and confidence that makes Mercy appealing. And the acting highlight probably belongs to David Patrick Kelly as Rogues' leader, Luther. He's just a loon and a scumbag that you have no choice but to like the guy. He makes Luther a character you can't trust or feel comfortable around. With three bottles and knocking them together shouting, "Warriors...come out and play-ay-ay...[which was completely ad-libbed]", Kelly created a pop culture icon that first comes to mind whenever THE WARRIORS is brought up.

Special mention goes to Thomas G. Waites as Fox. His performance is decent, but it's what happened behind-the-scenes that's more interesting. Apparently Waites was only on set for eight weeks of principal photography due to being difficult on set and always arguing with Hill about the direction of his character. This changed the script to THE WARRIORS majorly, as Fox was supposed to be the love interest of Mercy while Swan would have a different arc involving a gang called the Dingos. Due to his difficulty, Waites was killed off, which left Mercy and Swan becoming the love story of the film. It would have been interesting to see how the film was originally intended, but that's show business for you.

THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE DIGGING IT

- The Warriors hear that Cyrus is considered the "one and only". I hope it's not referring to either Billy Ray or Miley. There will be some achy breaky hearts ruining this party in the U.S.A. if that's the case.

- The Gramercy Riffs are the biggest gang in New York City. They must be huge P.J. Soles and The Ramones fans.

- Mercy tried to instigate tension between The Warriors and The Orphans. I would like to say she did that because it was her time of the month. But in her case, she'd probably be dead for bleeding 365 days a year.

- The Warriors were afraid of the bat carrying Baseball Furies. Understandably, since they were wearing replicas of Yankees uniforms. It would have been laughable if they ran away from guys dressed like the Mets...

- Swan won an exciting baseball bat duel against one of the Furies. He must have learned those awesome moves during his strange trip to XANADU.

- Ajax has anger, sexual, and prejudice issues. And he's later surprised that his son became a serial killer who's obsessed with collecting blood samples?

- Swan was being chased by a gang with roller skates. Yep, he's still in XANADU.

THE FINAL HOWL
While controversial upon its release [for no reason], THE WARRIORS is one of those cult films that still works extremely well today as it did back in 1979. It's not perfection on a technical sense, but as far as entertainment goes, only a few films can top it. Atmosphere and mood compensate for a simplistic narrative, while the direction and acting create a charm and appeal that will please. I'm probably overrating this film, but it's one of those gems that puts a smile on my face every time I watch it. I can definitely dig THE WARRIORS, Cyrus. I can dig it.





SCORE

4 Howls Outta 4


9 comments:

  1. I've always loved the scene where the Warriors meet the Orphans. It's so funny how the Warriors pretend to be intimidated in their presence!

    There's something about this movie's rating over here in Australia that's always confused me. Over here, it's rated R, (which is the NC-17 equivalant) and I never got why, because the movie isn't gory, or very violent. It's definetly not deserving of an R.

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  2. Yeah, I always felt bad for The Orphans. They were just trying to get their piece of the pie - a piece they weren't invited to or even aware of.

    As for the rating, that is very odd. I guess it's because it involves gang violence and attempted rape? I know it was controversial upon release, but it's pretty tame nowadays. It would probably still get an R here in the States, but not a hard R or anything.

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  3. Congrats on the 500Th review! That's a great and huge milestone! :D

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  4. Great review! Congratulations on #500! I first saw The Warriors when it premiered on Showtime in the early 80's. I liked it and watched it several times across that premiere month - but I haven't seen it since. I'm pretty sure I've added the DVD to the video vault...might have to go dig it up and give it a watch! Cheers!

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  5. Appreciate the congrats! Can't believe it's been 500 already. And I already have the next 15 reviews planned!

    As for THE WARRIORS, it still holds up very well. I own the Director's Cut, which a lot of fans don't like due to the comic book transitions and stuff. But I dig it and it doesn't change the film all that much at all. You should definitely watch it again when you get the chance.

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  6. Great write-up on a classic. Congratulations on the 500th review too!

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  7. Congrats on #500 and could you have picked a better film for the occasion? This is one of my favorite all-time films. I even bought the PS2 game the day it came out. And I am a fan of the DC as well.

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    1. Thank you, Geof! And yeah, I've been planning for this film to be 500 for the past year. I still own the PS2 game and enjoyed the hell out of it. Rockstar Games did an incredible job with it.

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