Update 2019: Another viewing, and the sensibility of The Warriors intrigues me even more than last time. While Walter Hill’s film feigns late ’70s New Hollywood realism at times, it’s a mislabelling, and perhaps an intentionally teasing one. Rather than presuming access to the “reality” of the lives of these youthful characters, Hill creates a world out of time, a big, poisonous apple that animates its characters’ interior psychologies – their aspirations to stave off the doldrums of youth by abstracting their own identities and turning themselves into heroic caricatures – but seems to keep the protagonists at a melancholic remove. It’s as though the city is their playground, but it can’t be their home.
The excessively affected, even stilted milieu of the film stands totally at odds with the presumption that it will offer a ragged portrait of gritty street-level realism. Instead, Hill offers an effusion, perhaps, of the inner abstractions these characters use to authorize their own sense of play. The film’s poetic weave drops them into this world and characterizes them via their actions, not references to the lives external to the world the film has created; it offers no sense of what they might be doing when the camera is not upon them. The elegiac tone of the film traps the characters, suggesting, tragically, that these wayward youths are embalmed in a tableaux, locked into some eternal struggle, or one they imagine to be eternal, that seems to deny them a sense of life outside this caricature.
It is as if the film is aware that its flattening of emotion, the way it stages the characters in a predetermined theater, robs them of the ungovernable beauty of human spontaneity. This New York is a purgatory of riddles, conjured as a vampiric entity that Hill sketches with a disturbed, almost demented aura, sucking the characters’ possibilities dry even as it scaffolds their imaginations. This is the diametric opposite of a Cassavetes picture, in other words, but The Warriors leans into its limits, and thereby exposes them, and perhaps transforms them into a strength, a sorrowful portrait of characters who seem doomed to the fate that the world, and the film, has dealt them.
There are all manner of things to begin with when discussing Walter Hill’s vigorously urgent 1979 comic book dissection of youth culture (read: action movie focused on gangs in the inner city), but I will choose to begin as the film does: with its opening titles. Fading in on a stark, abstract image of the neon lights of a ferris wheel off in the distance, alighting the blackness with a sickly, neon-tinged purple spinning around, the image then cuts to a similarly stark, darkened shot of blue lights moving across the screen which soon reveal themselves to be the windows of a subway train. A train, a ferris wheel…everyday objects both, but the film distances them from us, suffuses them with an unholy aura, and elevates them with an alien quality, displacing them into a world we do not, and possibly can never know. It’s haunting, a shockingly mellow, plaintive, introspective opening gesture for what is by all means a surface-level blast of energy, but it signals the film’s eye for cinematographic abstraction and its fable-like, neo-classical texture where characters are less people than figures in an icon painting.
Don’t worry though: the film picks up soon enough, right about when the icy, spooky late ’70s synth score by Barry Vorzon switches to something decidedly funkier, more metallic, and the intro credits metastasize into a hellish carnival, showcasing different groups of nine young men dressed in costumes, ever-on-the-move with relentless, unbridled energy. The film, we know by now, is about gangs in New York City. Specifically, it is about the Warriors, a multiracial group of streets invited to a large gathering of NYC’s gangs organized by the Gramercy Riffs, with the purpose of uniting all the gangs to take over the city. But, for all its exploration of gang culture, the film never does anything quite as exciting as the curious mix of naturalism and arch-stylism that is the film’s opening credits, showcasing the gangs with a non-narrative “in the moment” splendor that captures twenty-somethings at their most laid-back and real while also abstracting them as figures somehow beyond realism.
And it is, indeed, beyond realism. It’s not that The Warriors is a dream or any such thing, nor is it “not real” in a post-modern diegetic sense where the characters realize it’s all fake. But Walter Hill is a savvy enough craftsman to know when the whole idea of making a “gritty” “urban” action-adventure is itself an attempt at entertainment, and that this itself innately separates the film from whatever life on the streets could truly be like. Hill, grubby, grimy aesthetic aside, constructs his filmic world like a caricature of inner-city life, exaggerating not only the characters but the darkness around them, an outer vision, perhaps, of their psychological image of a city they call home but which seems to displace them to the margins.
Naturally, Hill’s heart-over-head craftsmanship sometimes got the better of him, but editors usually prevailed in the end. Some of the film’s more obvious tricks – like bridging a comic book cell and a film still through specific bits where the action is explicitly framed off for us and the images cel-shaded and frozen – were perhaps rightfully left out of the theatrical cut, for they make what is implicit throughout the film too explicit in a less than fully satisfying way (the comic book insert that transitions to the introduction of the Baseball Furies completely ruins their horror-tinged elements, sacrificing the quiet fear of the characters for something far too open about its implicit theatricality). But the theatrical cut attains a more subdued falsity without sacrificing the poetic grit and cinematic flair of the underground street ballet it really secretly wants to be.
At the same time, the film plays the situation with the utmost sincerity; it’s a timeless tale, but it’s totally committed to its own time-period and the legitimacy of its narrative underpinnings. If it’s silly stuff, Hill elevates it to a sort of sublime gravity not typically seen in genre pictures. If I were inclined to this kind of filmmaking, I would generously say it almost plays like a simultaneous affirmation and critique of the sometimes over-reaching, self-serving “realism” of the American New Wave. And as it happens I am inclined to this kind of filmmaking, and it does play like such a reaction to the New Wave, presaging the comic book grit of underground ’80s action cinema (a la Escape from New York) but with the added heft and seriousness of the New Wave still in tact.
Which is to say, although the film envisions New York as a playscape fantasia,the film undercuts its action with a seedy underbelly of nightmarish chiaroscuro and borderline expressionist shadows (John Carpenter’s slasher films were key influences, especially Assault on Precinct 13) that preface the impoverished loneliness of everyday life in New York for these predominantly working-class teens. In the end, when the Warriors bop all the way home, our sense is not of fist-raising excitement or even skeptical hopefulness, but forlorn melancholy; the entire film rings sour with an air of depressed emptiness, even pointless fatalism. It is an exploitation film, but it doesn’t demean or elide the real world poverty of these youths; instead it offers escape, a trenchant reminder that in a nightmare world sometimes the only option is heretical play. In the pointedly barren streets, the gangs of New York may be the only family these players have.
Elsewhere, the entire film is a minor masterpiece of construction, edited for maximum impact and shot with inspiration. The action itself has that inspired chaos thing down pat, capturing something as greasy and theatrical as the film. Even better, each action scene is filmically unique to the others. The Baseball Furies assault is choreographed like a fencing competition, with precise and even impressionistic strokes, and it lets each hit breathe through the stunningly bone-crushing sound design (contrasted with the clinical detachment of the gang itself, who show no emotion and never speak). The Lizzies bit is a sloppier, more hectic affair fitting its emotional fever, and the showdown with the Punks has mettle and backbone, being edited something fierce and with a cluttered, primal sensibility. Hill pulls out all manner of other effective tricks from his bag, all of which need not be mentioned here.
The film is, in every sense of the word, its craft, even if it succeeds somewhat in spite of itself. The acting is generally of a low ebb, with some members of the production rising to “competent” – and then only with the excuse of playing underdeveloped youth who don’t know what they are doing. Ironically, the only notably good performance – the “main” Lizzie excepted – is James Remar as the Warriors’ resident hard-headed lunatic and general annoyance; one particular scene where he tries to have his way with a woman is the most lived-in and feeling moment in the whole film, one particular shot showcasing him like the wounded, pitiful dog he is. The dialogue isn’t always up to snuff, and the film really doesn’t have a damn clue what to do with gender (at least one major female character is fairly unambiguously viewed through a misogynist lens, although this is situated right next to a few really fascinatingly telling and oddly progressive moments that showcase male privilege and the lack of opportunity for women at their most barren and matter-of-fact).
To this extent, there are a few wonderfully honest little moments scattered about, like a late-film sequence juxtaposing the beaten-down Warriors simply minding their own business and staring on with a righteous indignity and anger while a pair of young yuppie couples board the subway next to them, much to the latters’ discomfort. Immediately afterward, when the remaining Warriors get back to Coney Island and witness the urban decay, the effects are sobering. But Hill wasn’t so much out to find a hard-edged commentary on the haves and haves-nots as imagine another life, and the commentary that comes from within is a natural by-product of his brawny filmmaking first and foremost. It’s an extremely, shockingly well-constructed motion picture, and a proud showcase for the brutal, bruised potency of low-budget B-movie filmmaking at its finest. However you slice it, these warriors are good. Real good. And, in the moments where Hill fires with the full heft of his ability, the best.