'The Warriors' Review: I Can Dig It
Reviewing cult films is, by its very nature, a strange endeavor. Movies only reach such a status by creating legions of rabid, though rarely numerous, fans despite a lackluster primary release. They can be diamonds in the rough, or atrocities to pass by, but their appeal can be shallow in breadth. For the uninitiated to walk into such a work alone, with the sole intention of grading it for its literary or artistic merits, is almost blasphemy to many.
But here I am with The Warriors: a movie I knew so little about at the outset, I thought I was settling in for an Eighties post-apocalyptic action-fest.
I mean… I could have been further off, right?
And, I’ll be honest: this isn’t the kind of film I’m well versed in, either the one imagined or the one which I saw. The only Mad Max movie I’ve seen was the latest incarnation. I only just started seriously watching the Terminator franchise this year, and I probably missed virtually any other non-Star Wars flick that came out of the mid-70s to late-80s. It’s a problem I’m learning to deal with, I promise you.
1979’s The Warriors follows the escapades of nine members of the eponymous New York street gang as they attempt to return to their home turf after being blamed for the murder of the man who brought the gangs to a temporary truce in the hopes of uniting them to control the city. Their leader captured, Swan (Michael Beck) rises up to point the remaining team members home as they fight their way past wacky-themed enemy gangs and avoid the local police. Fights break out, some Warriors are captured or killed, and, by the end, they clear their names and make it back to Coney Island.
And that’s really all there is to say in the way of plot: the set-up is about as bare-bones as it can get, and few, if any, of the gang members truly get character arcs. The main spectacle are the fights, most of which are not amazingly choreographed, and the struggle of the journey itself. Most of the acting is blasé, and many shots highlight the amateur state of the director, Walter Hill (who, I will give him credit, was only on his third movie, and he had a startlingly low budget and tight schedule).
Yet there’s still an odd charm to the movie. The few gang members who we do spend real time with are enjoyable, each rival group is memorable, and there are shining moments of visceral action and quotable one-liners. The source’s author, Sol Yurick, is noted as having written the book as a response to the fantasized versions of gang struggles in such works as West Side Story¸ and the film does a great job at toeing the line between flashy romanticism and the gritty realism of a turf war. The focus is truly on the voyage of this band of brothers, in a classical style that evokes the great Greek epics (and character names such as Ajax don’t keep that influence far from mind). And while much of the film may feel stock today, it’s clear that this casual acceptance only comes from the great impression which the film left in the minds of audiences through the years.
My only real regret is how close The Warriors comes to being something transcendental and progressive. The casting has been notably white-washed (as the original intent was for the leads to be an all Hispanic or African-American gang), but the real tragedy is how close the women of this movie came to being truly remarkable characters. The “leading” woman, Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) starts out as a sketchy sidekick and evolves into Swan’s trophy. But somewhere along the way, she tries to branch out. She leads him away from danger, and even begins to confront the boy’s chauvinistic tendencies as Swan berates her for being “loose.” Unfortunately, after this short monologue and another kiss, the topic is dropped. Still, the film swings back in a better direction by letting the one gang with the best chance of threatening the Warriors be the Lizzies: an all-girl team who use the boy’s own desires and self-centered world views to lure them into a sense of complacency before moving to strike. Sure, in this version all our boys escape freely from their apartment, but at least we are left to hope that the idea of being beaten by a few girls might make them think twice about how they encounter the opposite sex!
Without becoming overly wacky, yet too early to be darkly, insufferably real, The Warriors is a fan-favorite that really does live up to the hype in many ways. By using a simple narrative and stereotyped characters, it remains easily digestible, not asking any more of its audience but to sit back and enjoy the ride. Whether you’ve never taken the time to watch, or you’ve been keeping it on the back burner of your re-screening list, I’d say it’s definitely time for The Warriors to come out to play.
Final Say: Watch It