29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
CLASSIC CULT FILM FOR REPEATED VIEWING,
This review is from: The Warriors [VHS] (VHS Tape)
A city-wide truce has been called so that nine representatives of each of NY's thousands of warring street gangs can get to a kind of conference. In the claustrophobic precincts of a torch-lit park up in the Bronx at dead of night, the leader of NY's most powerful gang invites them to join together - an army of a hundred thousand soldiers - to take control of the city. At the height of his speech he is gunned down by a teenage psychopath who successfully pins the blame on The Warriors, a gang up from Coney Island. At that point the rally is broken up by riot police, and the Warriors have to make it the length of New York City back to their home turf through enemy-occupied territory. Not only are the police out in force to pick up stray gang-members; the successor to the assassinated leader has put a price on the Warriors' heads, and every gang in the city is combing the streets for them.
Walter Hill's 1979 movie was based on a very downbeat novel by Sol Yurick, which was itself loosely based on an ancient Greek legend about a group of soldiers fighting their way home across enemy territory. It may not sound a promising formula, but Walter Hill turned it into one of the most entertaining and uplifting films of its decade and perhaps of his career. His successful strategy was to turn his back on the depressing realism of the book. Although the basic story-line and setting are from Yurick's novel, Hill turned to the original Greek tale for the broader atmosphere and moral tone of the film. Whereas Yurick was essentially writing about the dehumanising effects of peer group pressure and dysfunctional family life, Hill made a film about mutual trust and teamwork under pressure. You may not approve of his heroes - they are innocent of the main crime they are accused of but probably guilty of almost everything else imaginable - but you can hardly fail to root for them as the whole of New York is out for their blood and they are forced to find strengths they would never have suspected they possessed. They don't all make it home, of course, but for those who do it's a story of growing up in one night.
This could have been just another street-fighting movie, but it was made with humour, sympathy and affection long before the genre was popularised by computer games and its conventions became cast in stone. Some of the gangs out to get the Warriors are just soulless thugs, but others are real people struggling with poverty, self-esteem and their sense of belonging. There is a certain amount of mostly well-choreographed violence, but it is all pretty cartoonish and violence is the last thing the film is really about. The real theme is group dynamics: who will take the lead, who will follow, who will rebel, who will be sacrificed, who will end up older and wiser. And if this sounds boring, remember that when the film was first released it sparked riots in NY theatres.
The film boasts some fine character performances by young actors who have since gone on to wider acclaim, notably James Remar and David Patrick Kelly. It is crammed with memorable lines and unforgettable visual images, and a special word is required on its inspired use of the New York Subway - moody, dark, mysterious, enticing, threatening, Freudian. The trains constantly rushing through, scarred with graffiti, coming from and going to nowhere, are often a means of advancing the story, but they are so much more than that: Stopping and starting without warning, sometimes in the nick of time, sometimes a moment too late, they are a metaphor for the uncontrollable and fickle world in which the characters live. And just as often they seem to symbolise the world outside the tiny living space of these alienated kids and beyond their reach. The stations and tunnels are sometimes a protective womb, sometimes a battleground. We see no drivers, no ticket clerks, or indeed any humanising faces apart from the threatening presence of police officers prowling back and forth like monsters in a computer game - bump into one and you lose a life.
In the end Hill cannot resist moralising a little: The blossoming gotta-get-out-of-this-place romance between the alpha-male Swan and Mercy, a tough/fragile runaway girl who falls in with the gang initially just for kicks. The taut and delicately directed confrontation with a handful of "legitimate" middle-class passenger on the train. The despairing line ("Is this what we fought all night to get back to?") as the surviving members of the gang emerge from the night train onto the grimy elevated station at Coney Island, and survey their home turf in the cruel honesty of dawn's early light. These sentiments are not just slightly clumsy; they betray a mildly patronising middle-class pity on the film-makers' part for the characters they themselves created. But paradoxically, this very flaw contributes to the film's success. There has been no shortage of gritty real-life streetwise film-making, and the depressing earnestness of that sort of film can deter the very audience that most needs to be woken up by it. In contrast, this film that has been made purely for entertainment, with no cold sadistic violence, no prostitution and most remarkably of all no drugs, doesn't put up any barriers of revulsion. And it does not date, because the stylized cityscapes and costumes do not belong to any specific era. Thus it gets right under your skin and very subtly gives a transforming glimpse of the dark side of urban life and the humanity that we share with even its most exotic life-forms. That's probably why "The Warriors" sparked off riots on its first release, and perhaps that's why it seems to get even better with age.