The Warriors (1979)
★★★ / ★★★★
It’s sort of a miracle that Walter Hill’s “The Warriors” manages to work as an action film because it is driven only by two factors: visual pageantry and unadulterated attitude. It thrusts us into a world of street gangs—communities—that constantly fight for their place in New York City. We are not informed when the story takes place, but I think it is set some time in the future when rule of law barely has a grasp on the rest of society. The movie is fresh, entertaining, at times episodic, and transportive in that we crave to know more about its universe and its characters who value belongingness and the idea of family above all.
The plot is straightforward. During a gathering in the Bronx, the beloved leader of the Gramercy Riffs named Cyrus (Roger Hill), who has just delivered a speech about the importance of maintaining peace amongst the gangs, is shot dead. Chaos ensues, cops arrive at the scene, and soon enough The Warriors are framed for the murder. The Warriors’ even-tempered leader, Swan (Michael Beck), decides that they must make their way home from the Bronx to Coney Island—which will be not an easy task considering the likelihood that they now have a bounty on their heads.
The Warriors encounter a handful of groups on their way home, but each confrontation is different and memorable. For instance, the first gang we meet, The Orphans, actually possesses the numbers to stop The Warriors and deliver them to the Riffs. Members are on the streets, inside buildings, atop roofs. But notice how the screenplay by David Shaber and Walter Hill underscores the personality of this group, how their toughness and grittiness is a mask (maybe that is their real costume), how most important to them is idea of being recognized and respected by other groups. And why is that? Because they grew up as orphans. They yearn to feel wanted, to belong, to be regarded as worthy. What could have been a standard fist-fight and the like is turned into something else worthy of thought and consideration.
Another example: Crossing paths with the a group who refer to themselves as the Baseball Furies. Unlike The Orphans, they are not given a chance to speak. However, the camera inspires us to study them: how they wear matching baseball uniforms, how they don various colors of paint on their faces, how their expressions are mostly blank. Clearly, these are men who are strong and not afraid of confrontation. Thus, The Warriors must deal with them in a different way than they did The Orphans. Throughout the picture, this level of thought and freshness is maintained—which creates an engaging experience.
There is one aspect of the film that should have been explored which might have helped to take it to the next level. Of the nine unarmed Warriors delegates sent to Van Cortlandt Park, there are two strong personalities: Swan, the natural leader, and Ajax (James Remar), the brute spitfire. Some level of respect can be felt between the two, but it is apparent that the latter genuinely believes he is the better leader. And so there is conflict there, beginning with what to do as a group following the assassination. Moments of conflict between Swan and Ajax are telling, but there aren’t enough of it. The Warriors must face other gangs, but there is also tension within the group. Surely there is more drama to be mined from two fronts than just one.
Nevertheless, what’s at offer in here is fun, creative, very much worth seeing at least once. It is consistent in drawing a smile on my face because although it is an action film, there is barely any visual effects employed. Explosions and shootouts are kept at a minimum. Here is an action picture stripped bare. And how it dares to top itself one scene after the next. Do not miss this.