Monday, November 12, 2012

Reeling Backward: "The Warriors" (1979)

I'd been meaning to see "The Warriors" for a long time. A modest hit with audiences but not critics in 1979, its footprint has grown as it has taken on a reputation that's somewhere beyond cult film status and less than cultural touchstone. If you're a Generation X male, this movie probably means something to you. If you're older or younger than that, or lack a Y chromosome, not so much.

"The Warriors" exists in a quavery dimension between silliness and sobriety that is largely impenetrable. Generally movies with a heightened reality take pains to let the audience see the smirk at the corner of their mouth to let the audience know that despite the brutality they're witnessing, it's not really meant to be taken seriously. Director Walter Hill, who also co-wrote the screenplay with David Shaber, does not tip his hand with any lighter moments to break the mood.

The story has both pulp and classic literary antecedents. It was based on the novel by Sol Yurick, who in turn created a modern-day version of "Anabasis," the most famous work of the soldier Xenophon. It involves an army of Greek mercenaries who find themselves trapped deep in the Persian Empire surrounded by enemies on all sides, and must fight their way out. In Yurick's vision, the soldiers are members of New York City gangs in a dystopian near-future where society is fraying around the edges.

Hill, though, approaches the material with a comic book mindset -- even separating the story into "chapters" with cut scenes that freeze-frame and transition to illustrated panels.

Then there are the various gangs, which are more like tribes mixed with theatrical troupes. All of them wear their uniforms or "colors," which range from the plain to the outlandish. There's a group who dresses like 1920s dandy boys in neon sparkles, brightly-hued clowns, thuggish skinheads and more. Each gang is not so much a military force squabbling over small sections of turf in New York's seven boroughs as an ethos that is constantly performed for an audience that consists mostly of each other.

In this we can see various cinematic ancestors. There are the Sharks and the Jets in "West Side Story," of course. What is their antagonism based on? The fact that they're in different gangs. I also think of the roving gangs of the Australian wasteland in "Mad Max," which came out the same year as "The Warriors."

But I believe the film that most heavily influences this one is "A Clockwork Orange." There the "droogs" dressed in outlandish mash-ups of fashion and eras of time, mixing 17th century codpieces with Prohibition bowler hats -- not to mention grown men wearing makeup. They are supposed to look ridiculous, but the fact that they're heartless killers makes their outlandish gear even more disturbing.

The Warriors, the gang that controls Coney Island, has an American Indian flavor, favoring buckskin vests over bare chests and even feathers and jewelry for some members. They are notable in that they appear to be the only one of 100 gangs invited to a big meeting in the Bronx who are racially mixed. Most of the others are split between white, black and Hispanic -- such as the Gramercy Riffs, a militant Black Panther-esque outfit that happens to be the most powerful gang in New York.

Cyrus, the leader of the Riffs, has called the meeting in an attempt to meld all the city gangs into one coherent force that will overwhelm the police and take over New York. He's assassinated by Luther (David Patrick Kelly), the head of the Rogues, who tool around in a 1956 Cadillac hearse and delight in causing trouble for its own sake.

The Warriors are fingered for the outrage, and so they must make their way back to the sea with every other gang howling for their blood. A largely unseen radio DJ keeps the "boppers" apprised of the progress.

Two scenes from the film have become certifiably iconic. One is Luther taunting the Warriors, clanging together beer bottles stuck on his fingers while playfully singing, "Warriors ... come out to plaaaaaaayyyyyy!!" It's emblematic of the entire movie -- a childish gesture intended as a chilling moment of deadly intimidation that plays out as a goof.

The other is a fight in a park between the Warriors and the Baseball Furies -- a gang that dresses in Yankees pinstripes with garish face paint. They carry baseball bats as weapons, and their leader whips his around like a master samurai in a Kurosawa epic. The scene is likewise a total guffaw, meant to be frightening but instead quite schlocky.

Other notable gangs that turn up to harry the Warriors include the Orphans -- low-level tramps who are infuriated at not having been deemed important enough to be invited to the conclave -- and the Lizzies (think "Lezzes"), tough girl gangsters who act as sirens to entice a trio of the warriors away from their quest, and then nearly kill them.

The Warriors themselves are more character archetypes than distinct individuals. Their leader, Cleon (Dorsey Wright), is killed by the Riffs as misdirected vengeance for Cyrus, leaving the stoic -- nearly mute, in fact -- war chief Swan (Michael Beck) in charge. He's challenged by hothead Ajax (James Remar), who quickly grows sick of all the running and simply wants to fight everyone, no matter what the odds.

Cochise (David Harris) straddles the thin line of hostility between the two would-be leaders. Rembrandt (Marcelino Sanchez) is the youngest Warrior, almost angelic, who marks their passing with spray cans. Cowboy (Tom McKitterick) wears a hat and Vermin (Terry Michos) is a lothario with a hairy chest.

It's interesting how lean and un-pumped the bodies of the Warriors are compared to the overmuscled Stallones and Schwarzeneggers of the following decade. It's also notable that most of the principle cast members were about 30 when the movie was made, though the undertone of spent youth would seem to indicate teenagers.

Movies of this ilk often have a totally extraneous and unnecessary female character, and here her name is Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh). Women, including the Lizzies, are treated by the gangs as fungible commodities, to be bartered and won through combat. Indeed, the Lizzies entice Vermin, Cochise and Rembrandt by essentially offering themselves as sexual prizes to the Warriors to reward their prowess.

When we first meet her, Mercy is more or less the sex mascot of the Orphans. Immediately sensing that Swan and his gang represent a trade up, she abandons her old crew and tags along. It's never explained why she's there and why the Warriors tolerate her presence, since she's got a mouth on her. Swan or somebody is perpetually grabbing Mercy's arm, pulling her this way or that, demanding she stop slowing them down -- why, exactly, don't they just dump her?

The unreality of the Warriors' situation continually undercuts our ability to get caught up in their great adventure. For example, the Warriors are completely reliant on the subway system to get around -- virtually all of their battles take place inside a station or on their way toward one. It's amusing that these all-powerful gangs are considering a move to take over the entire city, yet they are almost entirely reliant on public transportation to get from here to there.

The Rogues seem to be the only gang that possesses both a gun and a vehicle. (The skinheads are the only others with mechanized transportation, piling onto a dilapidated dump truck.) Luther's use of a pistol is depicted as a dishonorable thing, a violation of the warrior (small "w") code that implies hand-to-hand fighting is the purest expression of combat. The Lizzies also have a gun, but it's not the same since, y'know, they're just girls.

2.5 stars out of four

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