Here’s a message for all you boppers out there… Walter Hill was a filmmaker that enjoyed toying with stories that concerned themselves with unabashed alpha males, morally murky anti heroes and movies where acts of honor could go hand in hand with brusing violence – but even he never turned in anything more awesome throughout his entire career than his own, The Warriors.
If you had to give his clench jawed adventure/thriller a spot on the tonal spectrum, I would have to say that it provide thrilling connective tissue between the dystopian hellscape that Martin Scorsese fashioned out of the Big Apple when the sun went down (see Taxi Driver or After Hours) and the cool, sci-fi pseudo-western of John Carpenter’s Escape From New York that took the city that never sleeps and turned it into a feral, Darwinian gauntlet. However, there’s something insanely mythic about The Warriors that remains gripping prevalent to this day – which is genuinely impressive for a movie that steadfastly insisted that a bunch of dude in red vests were the coolest fucking thing you’d ever seen.
The call has gone out. Cyrus, the leader of the all powerful gang known as the Gramercy Riffs, has put out a message for every noticable gang in New York to send nine unarmed delegates to a mystery midnight summit in Van Cortland Park. As numerous gangs of all shapes and colours slowly arrive, we focus on the band of youths known as the Warriors as they make their way from their turf of Coney Island all the way to see what’s up. It seems that Cyrus has plans, big plans that would see every brawl-happy group from the Turnbull ACs to the Electric Eliminators install a truce in order to bring the entire city under their control in one, huge crime syndicate. It’s an impressive plan, but its ine that’s fated to go unfulfilled when Luther, the maniacal leader of The Rogues, shoots Cyrus dead on a batshit whim and promptly blames it on the Warriors while everyone scatters.
Fingered by their mortal enemy (ew) and immediately hamstrung by the fact that their “Warlord”, Cleon, is taken out by the vengeful Riffs while trying to help, the remaining Warriors now have to make it all the way back to Coney Island despite the fact that the word has gone out to all the other gangs that these alleged assassins are to be wasted on sight.
Swan, the Warriors’ second in command takes the lead with other members such as graffiti artist Rembrandt and soldiers Cochise and Vermin toeing the line – however their enforcer, a mean piece of work named Ajax, figures that if he’s the toughest, then he’s the one who should lead.
If these guys don’t all get on the same page, their long journey through enemy territory is going to end in disaster and what with so many people out for their blood (not to mention The Rogues and the cops) surely making it to the decrepit sands of Coney Island is all but an impossibility.
From the opening shot of the lazily rotating lights of a rickety big wheel breaking up the inky black of a strapless night, Hill creates an alternate world that seems both creepily adjacent to ours and yet completely exaggerated in every way. Lumping in themes of Greek mythology, comic book reality and dystopian future shock, The Warriors uses its rousing opening credits sequence to drive the director’s vision home with impressive force – the real, daytime world of traffic jams and commerce might as well not exist as we see countless members of endless gangs heading out to the fateful summit while dolled up in all of their curious refinery (mimes, really?). In any other movie, these guys would undoubtedly be the enemy with thoughts of Assault On Precinct 13 immediately springing into the hippocampus, but Hill is brazen enough to put us right in the middle of this brutal world where these young, violent men carry themselves like Spartan troops or quick tempered berserkers rather than the small time hoodlums they actually are. As a result, we end up embracing this gaudy, yet vicious world almost instantly.
Be it the structure of the gangs themselves with prove to be amusingly stylised, or the achingly cool manner that information is spread by the iconic, ruby red lips of an unseen DJ, Hill hooks us with this exaggerated universe, but keeps us enthralled with his thinly sketched, but clearly defined characters. Michael Beck as Swan, weathers his trial by leadership with a jawline so stoic, it could cleave pure marble and while his silent, tough guy persona is fairly standard for a flick like this, the rare flashes of humanity he shows – especially when engaging in a flirty back and forth with wild card jezebel, Mercy – clues you in on his honorable nature. In comparison, James Remar’s angry and worryingly rapey Ajax reminds us that even those these are the guys we’re rooting for, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re stand up guys. In fact, whenever he’s on screen, usually only thinking with his fists or his balls, Remar actually doesn’t seem to be acting that much and seems to be fully embodying this predatory thug one hundred percent.
While the rest of the Warriors stuck on this hazardous journey are hardly given much of a chance to flesh out their roles beyond sweaty face breakers, Deborah Van Valkenburgh convinces as aforementioned thrill seeker Mercy who is adopted into the group by attrition and David Patrick Kelly excels beyond all of you wildest dreams as the truly deranged Luther and even gifts the movie possibly it’s most iconic moment as he clinks beer bottles in time with his famous, goading shriek of – altogether now – “Warriors… come out to plaaaaaaaaay-yaaaay!”
In retrospect, it’s a good thing Hill decided to go down the comic book route (that was later made even more apparent in a somewhat unsubtle director’s cut), otherwise the scenes of violence that sees our heroes pummel their foes with baseball bats, throw them through toilet stalls or – during one magnificently overblown moment – break a chair across a female gang member’s face, would have made the film more vicious than A Clockwork Orange.
However, even in this dark and violent world where gang run around in baseball uniforms and painted faces (love the Baseball Furies), Hill is wise enough to let justice still prevail – even Ajax gets an appropriate fate that screams of cinematic payoff – which makes it far easier to find yourself falling in love with this preposterous world.
Finally, for those who would complain that maybe Hill has sketched this world a little too thinly, fear not, as the backstory to The Warriors was fleshed out magnificently in Rockstar’s 2005 video game adaptation that – if you can find it – gives you all pre-history and rib fracturing all you boppers could possibly desire for a film that remains impossibly cool despite its cast looking like a fancy dress party gone horribly wrong.
Now can you dig that, suckers?