The Warriors, 1979.
Directed by Walter Hill.
Starring Michael Beck, James Remar, Deborah Van Valkenburgh and David Patrick Kelly.
The Warriors have been framed for murder. They must now make their way through New York City back to Coney Island with a bounty on their heads.
“Nowhere to run or hide” is the radio message put out by the Riffs, the most powerful gang in New York City. It’s dedicated to The Warriors, “that lively bunch from Coney”. The Rogues, a rival gang, has framed them for the murder of Cyrus, the Riff’s charismatic leader.
The Warriors opens with nine unarmed representatives from each gang in New York City making their way to Van Cortlandt Park. There’s a helluva lot of them. Cyrus had summoned them there to propose a citywide truce. That way they could wrestle control from the police force. United, they’d be stronger.
Cyrus, the fallen prophet, speaks like Booker T, with “suckas” and “dig its”. But then a shot echoes round the park and he falls from his mantle. “It’s them, the Warriors!” screams the true Rogue gunman over the confused crowd. The Warriors, our protagonists, must battle their way back to Coney Island with a bounty on their heads. Every gang in New York is after them.
The gang is diverse, and each plays their part. Swan (Michael Beck) is the leader; Ajax (James Remar) the loose canon; Rembrandt (Macelino Sánchez) the resident graffiti artist. Their names loosely reflect their character in a comic book sort of way. Saying each name in dialogue flows seamlessly, as everyone converses in a coded slang.
Graffiti paints the streets of The Warriors' New York, each gang staking their claim over its walls. Even the cars are sprayed. There’s hardly a single civilian out there. Only the gangs roam about in their various colours. The truce, after all, has been broken.
There’s the Baseball Furies, who parade round menacingly with their faces painted up like some solemn clown, bats in hand; the Lizzies, a group of dangerous lesbians who entice men into their trap; the Orphans, one of the “minor league teams” pieced together from those forgotten by society. It is from this last gang that the film’s femme fatale appears, a whore who sees the chance to jump to a gang higher up the food chain. Her name is Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), but she sure don’t show none.
The Warriors could just take off their colours and amble home incognito. They’re too proud for such discretion. Death before dishonour, even over something as insignificant as territory.
The dialogue, characters and plot all foster a reality unconnected with our own. Sure, it’s New York City, but it’s an unseen one. It’s as though this world of street gangs and territories exists in its own mythology; that nothing else exists beyond the city through which they trudge. For the young men in the gangs, ensnared by street life, perhaps there isn’t.
The film’s most poignant moment comes when this comic-book veil is broken. There are hardly any civilians throughout, the streets dominated by gangs and police. Then on one of the last stretches back to Coney Island, as the Warriors catch their breath on the subway, two young, smartly dressed couples sit down opposite Swan and Mercy.
Pristine in white suits and dresses, the camera contrasts them with the dirty legs and arms of the gang leader and the whore. They might have a chance getting back to Coney Island, but they sure don’t have a chance at a life like that.
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