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 chose 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 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 and elevates them with an alien quality, setting them off as 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.
Don’t worry though, things pick up soon enough with, right about when the lightly spooky late ’70s synth score by Barry Vorzon switches to something decidedly funkier, more metallic, and quite a bit excitingly fiery. It’s a hellish carnival of fury, showcasing different groups of nine young men dressed in all manner of goofy duds, 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-stylisms 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.
The opening credits also signal an important through-line running from beginning to end in the film: it isn’t really “real”. Now don’t worry, it’s not a dream or any such thing, nor is it not real in a 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 cartoon, exaggerating not only the characters but the darkness around them.
Naturally, Hill’s heart-over-head craftsmanship some times 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 silliness). 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. And, for all its gritty aplomb, it doesn’t really make much of a secret – the tacked-on comic book opening even explicitly compares the Warriors to myth, and the whole thing has the surface-level appeal of children imagining colorful characters and cliques for themselves in the playground.
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 its 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 piece 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. Of particular note though are the sequences involving the Riffs, which are filmed with such gravitas and midnight-cinema tinged shadows they can’t but impart the legitimacy of the city’s biggest and most important gang.
The film is, in every sense of the word, its craft, even if it exceeds 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 and thus might seem stilted. 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 female is the most lived-in and feeling moment in the whole film, one particular shot showcasing him like a wounded, pitiful dog. 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, and this is situated right next to a few really fascinatingly telling and oddly progressive moments showcasing male privilege and the lack of opportunity for women at their most barren and matter-of-fact).
But visually and aurally it’s an A-effort all-around, crafted to please and entertain in the most direct and hard-hitting kind of way, with techniques pushed right up to the front and center to capture a life equal parts fantasy and grim reality. Hill takes this mixture and finds a certain sweet-spot where he can examine gang culture less through its reality than the rebellious “role-playing” playground it wishes to present itself as, as well as through the nightmares mainstream America has about this playground of the night. The film never lives above its characters or situations; it always grants them their essence and seriousness and lives with them the way they wish to live, not sermonizing to/ reveling in gang culture or demonizing it. It doesn’t judge. It observes, unflinchingly so at times.
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 and find themselves uncomfortable. Immediately afterwards, 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, vampiric 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.