In Walter Hill’s stylized and slightly surreal cult hit The Warriors, the street gangs of New York dress in matching theme outfits, as though they are all British pop groups from the 1960s. There are the Baseball Furies (heavy face paint and pinstriped uniforms); the High-Hats (mimes, basically); the Lizzies (a tastefully trashy biker chick vibe), and the relatively tweedy Warriors themselves, who rock matching sleeveless maroon leather vests.
There are hundreds of equally colorful gangs in the city, and one night each gang is invited to send nine delegates to a special conclave being held in the Bronx. It turns out that the charismatic Cyrus, leader of the highly respected Gramercy Riffs (matching leather jackets, sunglasses, bling) wants to propose an unprecedented alliance. All the city’s gangs combined, Cyrus argues, would number in the tens of thousands; they could evict the police and rule New York City.
This enticing idea seems, for a moment, as though it will unify New York’s gang culture (the assembled delegates seem to be digging it, anyway), but tragedy strikes: Cyrus is assassinated mid-speech, and in the confusion, the Warriors are wrongly accused to committing the crime. Now being hunted by 60,000 enemies, the gang must fight its way back to the safety of its home turf of Coney Island.
Based on Sol Yurick’s 1965 novel, The Warriors takes a simple premise and propels it forward with admirable speed and efficiency. While many directors would choose to make a movie of this kind look gritty and rough around the edges, Hill goes in another direction, creating a sleek dystopian New York that seems eerily depopulated, its deserted streets glistening; only the gangs seem to venture out after dark, tuning into the radio station that delivers coded messages read by Lynn Thigpen in a series of extreme close-ups (Thigpen, incongruously, also plays The Eagles).
It seems strange today that the movie generated so much controversy upon its release; there was a good deal of worry that it would incite gang violence. And in fact there were some violent incidents between rival gangs that happened to show up at the same theater to see it, causing the movie’s theatrical run to be cut short. But those concerns were clearly rooted in the anxieties of Carter-era America, not in anything you see on-screen. Because the gangs in The Warriors aren’t much tougher than the ones we saw in West Side Story, though they tend to be, on the whole, snappier dressers.
The Warriors is a lot more fun than West Side Story, though, and as a movie it works a lot better than Hill’s even more stylized retro-future fantasy Streets of Fire (1984) — Michael Popham
THE WARRIORS screens Friday and Saturday, July 10 and 11, at 7:00 and 9:00, and Sunday, July 12 at 5:00 and 7:00. There will also be a special 10:00 am screening on Saturday, July 11 with a book club discussion of Sol Yurick’s novel The Warriors to follow at Moon Palace Books around the corner. Advance tickets are $8.00. and you can purchase them here.