Monday, June 18, 2007

Cult Classic Corner: The Warriors

Director: Walter Hill
Starring: Michael Beck, James Remar, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, Roger Hill, David Patrick Kelly, Dorsey Wright, David Harris, Lynne Thigpen
Running Time: 93 min.

Rating: R

Release Date: 1979

***1/2 (out of ****)

"Warriors...come out to play-ay!"

A while back I was having a conversation with someone who told me can't stand it when people bitch and complain about how unsafe the New York City Streets are. He said if they think it's unsafe now he'd like to see them try to last two minutes in the late 70's and early 80's. He's right. We've actually come a long way. Or have we? Did that time period just feel more dangerous? It wasn't long before our conversation shifted to Walter Hill's 1979 cult classic, The Warriors. Even though the film is supposedly taking place in the future, there's no mistaking where it's really coming from. This is a movie very much a product of its own time and era. Everything about the film, from it's music, to its setting, to its whole feel just screams late 70's and early 80's New York. If that's the future, we're in for a rough ride.

It's rare I praise a film for being all style and no substance but this is one of those exceptions. It needs no substance. The movie doesn't really say anything important thematically, the acting is average at best, the story at times feels like one big practical joke, yet the whole thing works. In fact, it not only works, but it holds up just as well, if not better, today than it did in 1979. It's constantly quoted and referenced in pop culture circles, was given a special edition DVD treatment in 2005, was made into a very popular video game and now there's a remake in the works. It's amazing to think that at the time of its release the film actually inspired gang violence since by today's standards there's so little of it in the film and the whole movie feels more like a cartoon come to life.

I think it was the movie's depiction of gang mentality and message of rebelliousness that inspired the violence rather than the violence itself. The fight scenes are staged like dance sequences and the uniforms of the gang members look more like something you'd wear on Halloween. Walter Hill has gone on record to say he was interested in turning the source material of Sol Yurik's 1965 novel into a contemporary live action comic book and he succeeded. The 2005 special edition DVD hammered this point home by actually adding animated comic book transitions between scenes, which is a change that surprisingly helps clarify the tone of a film that was always slightly misunderstood. This surrealism is all set against the backdrop of a very gritty, realistic New York, making for an always interesting, well-paced movie that, while no masterpiece, isn't that easy to forget.

It's midnight in New York City and a summit is called by the messiah-like leader of the Gramercy Riffs gang, Cyrus (an electrifying Roger Hill) with the intention of calling a truce between all the gangs in New York. His plan is to unite them all against the NYPD, whose stranglehold over them and the city is slipping. It sounds good (especially in his unforgettable speech) but in reality it's just a pipe dream. During his speech he's fatally shot by Luther (David Patrick Kelly), leader of a gang called the Rogues, who end up framing The Warriors for the murder during the ensuing chaos. The Riff's beat their leader to death and The Warriors find themselves on the run and every gang in New York has a bounty on their heads. With their second in command Swan (Michael Beck) now in charge, a loose cannon named Ajax (James Remar) and a feisty girl from the streets, Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) tagging along, they try to make it back home to Coney Island by morning. It's getting there alive that's the problem.

I have to admit I love movies that take place over the span of one night or one day and focuses on characters that have a certain set time to accomplish what they need to stay alive. It always adds a certain forward momentum and urgency to the proceedings, giving the film a narrative focus it doesn't have if it takes place over the span of a couple of weeks or months. I'm not a screenwriter, but I'm guessing if you outlined your story in that manner it would likely become a hell of a lot easier to write. There should be a new rule that no action movie can go over the 24-hour time limit because very rarely, if ever, have I seen a movie employ this device and fail. The protagonists in the film have a clear problem and there's only one way it can be solved: They must get from point A to point B without being killed and they must do it by morning. So simple, yet so effective. A journey and a destination.

It's amazing how many action movies have problems doing this and get sidetracked, but Hill takes it a step further by using the New York subway system as a character to get them there. One station leads to another and at each stop is a different set of obstacles and gangs preventing them from reaching their destination. And how about those gangs? This is the movie's crowning achievement. Each gang has what can best be described as a gimmick of sorts, with their costumes and names suggesting their personalities. It seems ridiculous when you think about it (and it kind of is), but it adds a campy, entertaining feel to the picture that becomes even more of a blast on repeated viewings. It's one of the few times when watching a movie I found myself in awe of the costume design and admiring how much it added to the story and feel of the picture.

We have the cowardly Orphans (all in green shirts with "ORPHANS" stitched on the back and blue jeans), The Lizzies (an all female lesbian gang), The Punks (who all wear overalls and have a leader on roller skates), and most memorably The Furies (guys in pinstriped baseball uniforms and KISS-like face paint wielding baseball bats). The Furies have since become the iconic symbol of the film and their fight with The Warriors in Central Park recall Kurosawa's samarai films, except with baseball bats. Looking back, parents who had children in this era must be grateful the film was rated R because if not I'm convinced every little kid in America would probably be wearing face paint and wielding baseball bats.

Hill also employs the device of a Greek chorus that comments from the sidelines. It's a forgotten art, but can be very effective and entertaining if used properly. Here that Greek chorus is the great Lynne Thigpen (tv's Where In The World Is Carmen San Diego?) as a radio DJ who not only provides the film's soundtrack but also updates us on the location of our protagonists and their situation. Somewhat similar to Samuel L. Jackson's role in Do The Right Thing. She has a great, deep speaking voice and Hill shoots her in an almost unsettling extreme close-up to drive her delivery home. It's just one more example of Hill using his setting and characters to move the story forward without you ever consciously noticing.

The performances are adequate but it's almost irrelevant since this isn't an actor's movie at all. Everything is about spectacle. Wisely realizing big names may cause a distraction and take some authenticity away from the film, Hill cast unknowns. Beck is sufficient in the lead while Valkenburgh is a pleasant surprise mainly because she doesn't fit the profile of your typical leading lady, which in this case works in her favor. The best performances come from Kelly and Remar, who get to play the two most manic, over-the-top characters in a film that's just bursting with them.

Walter Hill, much to author Sol Yurik's disappointment, took major liberties with his novel to the point it could be considered a completely different story. The novel was actually loosely based on the Greek story Anabasis, which told of a Greek army that made it's way through enemy Persian territory to The Black Sea. This is alluded to visually (in comic book style) in the prologue to the special edition DVD release. Since The Warriors has become such a cult phenomenon it's ironic that Hill now finds himself struggling to preserve his own vision as they're planning a big budget remake he's said to be strongly against. Originally Tony Scott (Man on Fire, Déjà vu) was scheduled to direct, but rumors circulated that he dropped out unhappy with the direction the studio wanted to go.

Last I heard they were planning to cast real gang members, set it in Los Angeles instead of New York and discard many of the campy elements of the original. You'd think, inevitably, it would also be more violent. I'm not too sure this is a good idea. It's not that the film is an untouchable masterwork, but rather there isn't much more can possibly be wrung from this material. Plus, the story is now so identifiable to that time and place a modernized version couldn't possibly contain the nostalgiac enjoyment of the original.

If they really are going to do a remake though, for some reason I see The Rock filling Roger Hill's shoes as Cyrus and delivering that impassioned speech at the start of the film. He seems like the most logical choice to deliver what in essence is a wrestling promo written for a movie. I've heard some fans recommending Vanessa Ferlito (Grindhouse) for the role of Mercy, which is also an interesting casting choice that might work. The Warriors isn't a film for all tastes and it takes more than one viewing to fully appreciate what Walter Hill was trying to accomplish. Despite its reputation as a violent gang picture, it's really the threat of violence and pervading sense of danger accompanying it that makes this film feel special. It's a memorable experience, if you can dig it.

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