Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Warriors (1979)


          Existing somewhere between time-capsule kitsch and timeless badassery, Walter Hill’s hypnotic urban-violence fable The Warriors is a wholly unique creation. Set in a fever-dream vision of New York City populated by roving street gangs, brutal policemen, and the occasional innocent bystander, the picture tracks the adventures of a Coney Island-based posse called the Warriors. They join dozens of gangs converging on Manhattan for a rally with messianic underworld leader Cyrus, who envisions the gangs joining forces to take over the city, but nutjob gang-banger Luther (David Patrick Kelly) pops Cyrus and blames the Warriors for the murder. Our heroes then become targets for every gang in the city, allowing Hill to string together scary episodes of the Warriors clashing with colorful troupes like the Baseball Furies, whackos in sports uniforms and face paint who beat the crap out of their enemies with, naturally, baseball bats.
          Loosely based on a novel by Sol Yurick, the plot is ingenious, pushing the heroes through a nightmarish gauntlet—and since Hill and his collaborators don’t expend much energy differentiating characters as individuals, the travails of the Warriors play out like a nihilistic comic book. Michael Beck and James Remar star as two lieutenants jockeying for command of the Warriors; Beck plays a pragmatist who realizes running is the safest option, and Remar’s a hothead who wants to take on every comer.
          Yet it’s the sights and sounds that really command attention. The Warriors look like gladiators wearing just brown leather vests over their torsos, Hill shoots subway trains as if they’re boats racing down rivers, and ghostly nighttime streets feel like dangerous forests. Hill also employs several clever transitional devices, like Lynn Thygpen’s recurring role as a gang-friendly DJ (we only ever see her mouth) who gives running commentary on the action playing out on the streets. Barry DeVorzon’s synth-rock score is perfect, just the right mix of gritty swagger and mechanical menace, and the movie gets capped by Joe Walsh’s evocative tune “In the City,” which DeVorzon and Walsh co-wrote.
          The picture sparked controversy during original release because of reports that gang violence broke out at screenings, but viewed in the safe environs of the home, it’s an engrossing exercise in bloodthirsty style. As Cyrus says before he takes a bullet: “Can you dig it?” (Sidenote: Stick with the original version and avoid the “Ultimate Director’s Cut,” which adds cheaply rendered comic-book flourishes that don’t work.)

The Warriors: GROOVY

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