Retro Movie Nerd: THE WARRIORS (1979)

Your local mom and pop video store should be the cornerstone of all your nostalgia. Most of us are old enough to remember going to the video store on a Friday or Saturday night, searching for that hidden treasure or a lost/forgotten/neglected gem. Most of the time, it was the cover art that appealed to the senses, even if the movie was forgotten for a very good reason. Retro Movie Nerd attempts to recall those moments in time.

This week, we check out a film that has gathered quite the cult following over the years.

Rated R for violence and language
Running time: 92 min.
Release date: February 9, 1979

When The Warriors was first released back in 1979, most critics were not very kind to it, with the majority of criticism directed toward the lack of realism with the plot. Over time, The Warriors has become a cult favorite of many, with some critics even going back and reviewing it again with a different perspective. Director Walter Hill has created an alternate reality to the real life setting of New York and that is the perspective that I’ll be taking in looking at this film. Honestly, let’s face it: movies are an escape from realism, and The Warriors knows the path to take on that escape route.

The story is based on Sol Yurick’s novel of the same name which, in turn, was based on Xenophon’s Anabasis. I have not read that original story because, of course, it’s all Greek to me………….*ahem*. Anyway, the leader of the largest and most powerful gang in New York, the Gramercy Riffs, has called a summit of all the city’s gangs, requesting they send nine unarmed delegates to Van Cortlandt Park. Cyrus (Roger Hill) wants a permanent truce between the gangs so that they can combine their numbers and overwhelm the police force, which they would outnumber five to one (“Can you dig it?”). The gangs all appear to agree with this idea, although that all goes to hell when Luther, leader of the Rogues, shoots Cyrus and points the finger at the leader of the Warriors, Cleon (Dorsey Wright), unbeknownst to the rest of the gang, who fled with everyone else when the police crashed the party. A hit is put out on the rest of the Warriors gang, via radio DJ (voiced by Lynne Thigpen of Carmen Sandiego fame).

The rest of the story concerns the Warriors attempting to make it back to their home base of Coney Island in one piece, with various gangs blocking their path. What’s right with the plot? It’s easy to follow. This gang is trying to get home alive, and everyone else is out looking for their blood. The action set pieces are quite enjoyable, as the Warriors run into one gang after another, each one with their own colorful garb and gimmicks. New York at night has been the daunting setting of many action films, and it is no less daunting here, as rain-slicked streets are dimly lit, with danger waiting The Warriors around every corner.

What’s wrong with the story? It’s really just one note. It’s fighting and running and not much else. The dialogue is rather stilted as everyone takes turns speaking, removing any spontaneity from conversations. Also, the motivations behind Luther’s shooting of Cyrus is not too convincing (“I just like doing things like that.”) as well as his reasoning behind pointing the finger at The Warriors. Has he had run-ins with them previously and is getting revenge? Does he just not like them? These are unanswered questions and it does hamper the story somewhat.

Walter Hill has created a fantasy world in The Warriors. There isn’t much realistic here in terms of our own sense of reality, but this story is more at home in the world of pulp and comic books. The action is sensationalized much like a fight between a superhero and a supervillain, as colorful characters pop up in every frame. Hill takes a street gang, who are normally breaking laws and undertaking deadly tasks, and makes them into an underdog you can root for. The viewer can relate to wanting to get out of a crazy situation alive, so Hill is able to generate sympathy for these anti-heroes.

This guy will need a haircut before getting the call to play for the Yankees.

As mentioned, the screenplay by Hill and David Shaber is quite flawed, with the stilted dialogue and the lack of motivation behind character actions, but the context of the dialogue is at a level the viewer can appreciate, as it all aids in moving the story along at a brisk pace. Cinematographer Andrew Laszlo needs to get a ton of credit for the way New York was filmed. The rock soundtrack is also a key player in making this film more enjoyable. The Joe Walsh tune “In the City” at the closing credits is the perfect note that a film like this needs to go out on.

When there is an ensemble cast such as in this film, it may be difficult to give some credit for the work on-screen. There are a few standouts in this case, however. James Remar heads the list as Ajax. With snide and offensive remarks and a chip on his shoulder, Remar made a career out of playing tough guys, most likely because of this role. It also doesn’t help to have a natural tough-guy inflection in his voice. Michael Beck plays Swan, a guy thrust into the leadership role due to the loss of Cleon. Beck is quite wooden here, or perhaps he’s just stoic; it’s rather hard to tell. There appears to be some softening in scenes with Mercy, played by Deborah Van Valkenburgh. Deborah is spunky and obnoxious and rough around the edges. The difference between her and your average American girl is on display during a scene on a subway train, when she makes eye contact with a young girl with her date, making their way back from prom (one assumes based on the style of dress). David Patrick Kelly is pretty great in most films you find him in. He is pitch perfect in playing the cocky, arrogant little prick who will insult you and then hide behind a much bigger guy for protection. Here as Luther, he is obviously crazy and twitchy. He doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but what few scenes he has, you just want to punch him in the face through the screen.

The Warriors is filled with good action with fight scenes aplenty, all expertly choreographed and filmed. The fight-and-run setup gets a little redundant by the end of the film, but it is never dull. Character motivations are still left hanging without much explanation, but we always know who to root for. The dialogue may be awkwardly delivered, but at least we know what they are talking about. Finally, the movie is highly quotable and is one of the reasons why it has become a cult favorite over the decades. Now can you dig THAT?

***1/2 – Very Good.

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