Monday, September 20, 2010

"The Warriors" (1979)

Starring Michael Beck, James Remar and Brian Tyler
Written by David Schaber
Directed by Walter Hill

"Can you dig it?"

"The Warriors" opens with a massive meeting of all the gangs of the five Burroughs, including a group called The Warriors, out of Coney Island.  A man named Cyrus (Roger Hill), charismatic leader of the Gramercy Riffs has a bold plan to unify all the gangs and take over New York City.  With all the tens of thousands of gang members under one flag, not even the police would be able to keep them from doing whatever they want, declaring New York their turf.  Each gang sends nine representatives to the meeting, unarmed, under the flag of a tenuous truce.

However, right in the middle of his speech, Cyrus is gunned down by Luther (David Patrick Kelley), leader of the Rogues.  One of the Warriors, Fox (Thomas Waites) witnesses this act.  The Rogues, however, take advantage of the confusion to pin the murder on the Warriors just as riot cops storm the area.  The Riffs capture Cleon (Dorsey Wright), but the other eight Warriors manage to make it out.  Their leader dead, the Riffs put a price on the Warriors' heads.  Even with the truce in place, the Warriors are now wanted men.

Led by Swan (Michael Beck) and Ajax (James Remar), the surviving Warriors must make the perilous journey from the Bronx back to Coney Island, crossing through the territories of a number of bloodthirsty gangs out to get them and claim their prize.  Hunted by rival gangs as well as the police, the Warriors must somehow clear their names in the murder of Cyrus... even if they manage to make it back to their own turf in one piece.

"The Warriors" is an interesting film.  The characters aren't particularly fleshed out or even all that memorable, but what the film accomplishes in spades is constructing a film loaded with tension and a palpable sense of danger.  The Warriors are unarmed and hugely outnumbered, making their way through enemy territory where anyone could be out to get them.  Of course, the danger isn't always from without, either, as the internal squabbles of the group threatens to tear them apart as well.

The film progresses through a number of escalating encounters as the Warriors' situation becomes more desperate.  It builds smoothly for the first hour or so, but unfortunately then starts to run out of steam before picking back up again just in time for a rollicking climax.  It's when the group gets split up and becomes distracted from their mission that the film starts to lose some of its precious tension.  It doesn't get bad enough to ruin the entire thing, but it certainly wavers dangerously close to that line.  A stunted, semi-romantic subplot also doesn't work but the film barely even attempts it anyway.

The gangs in the film are fairly cartoonish, mostly caricatures - groups with simplistic gimmicks.  The Lizzies are vicious Siren-like girls who lure the Warriors in with the promise of sex and fun only to try and murder them.  The Baseball Furies sound exactly like they are: a bunch of weirdos in dirty baseball uniforms and war paint that try to bludgeon the Warriors to death with baseball bats.  But they're all kinda scary in their own way, probably because we don't really know anything about them.  They might be caricatures, but they seem pretty freakin' dangerous.  I wouldn't want to run into any of them in a dark alley.  Not even the Warriors, frankly.  They might be our protagonists, but they don't all seem entirely like good people, either.  Ajax, in particular, isn't someone I'd readily want to call a friend, and even some of the other Warriors feel that way.

The dynamics of the Warriors are pretty interesting.  They don't all particularly like Ajax, yet they feel compelled to look after him due to their allegiance to the gang.  The Warriors are all intensely proud to be Warriors, as well.  They could easily have avoided much of the trouble they get into by simply ditching their gang colors and going stealth.  Instead, they decide to play by the rules - even trying to negotiate passage with one of the gangs before the shit really hits the fan.

Ultimately, it's that sense of dread and ingenuity in the film that keeps it moving along.  The chases and moments of dire are punctuated by a few brutal fights and an energetic musical score.  The final battle in a subway bathroom is a great brawl, with lots of hard hits, broken scenery and body slams.  The setting, a dark, grimy and disgusting New York City is entirely devoid of anything remotely like safety for the Warriors.  The number of innocent civilians that appear in the film can be counted on one hand.  The setting, therefore, feels almost apocalyptic - taking the City that Never Sleeps and turning it into one giant, viciously dangerous wasteland.

At the beginning of the movie, Cyrus asks the crowd, "Can you dig it?"

Yeah.  I dig.

(And, PS, in an ideal world, Heath Ledger is still alive and stars as Snow in a badass remake)