Walter Hill's 1979 movie The Warriors is a snapshot of New York City when subway cars were covered in graffiti and people did not wander Central Park after dark. Thirty-six years after its release, this iconic work is a reminder that the modern-day NYC, of gentrifying neighborhoods from Hell's Kitchen to the Gowanus Canal and a Manhattan that is a tourist's wet dream, was not so long ago, the poster child for urban decay. As the blinkered lights of the Coney Island Wonder Wheel flicker to attention, a graffiti-riddled MTA train comes into view, and the credits roll over an eerie, synth-heavy instrumental, moviegoers are transported back to that gritty chapter in the Big Apple's illustrious history.
The Warriors is a movie I love.
The plot is very simple. While a truce is being honored, delegates from the city's top hundred gangs attend a summit in Pelham Park called by the largest gang, the Gramercy Riffs, and their charismatic leader, Cyrus. The one condition is that no one bring weapons. The Warriors, an outfit out of Coney Island, make the lengthy trip only to have one of their own fingered as Cyrus's killer when the man is shot during his speech preaching a vision of a single unified gang running all of New York City. In the ensuing mayhem, The Warriors' leader Cleon is beaten to death and the remaining members must "bop their way" back to Coney Island with every gang in the city gunning for their heads.
The long trip from the Bronx back to Coney Island is naturally filled with peril, as various gangs come close to, but can never quite snuff out the scrappy Warriors, who, when they are not squabbling amongst themselves are dodging the bat-wielding Furies, the Orphans, an off-the-track crew that did not even get an invitation to the big get-together, and the Lizzies, a group of femme fatales, among others. Along the way, one Warrior is killed while scuffling with a police officer on a subway platform and another is arrested after he gets too physical with an undercover cop. By the time dawn breaks and the Warriors confront Cyrus's real killer, Luther, the head of the Rogues, on the sand of Coney Island, the Gramercy Riffs have sussed out what is what and proceed to destroy the perpetrators as the strains of Joe Walsh's In The City signal the movie's end.
There are many things that make The Warriors so timeless. When Shaq bellowed "CAN YOU DIG IT" at post-NBA Championship parade rallies, he was repeating Cyrus's most famous line of dialogue. If one of your friends ever clinked empty bottles together and started shouting "COME OUT AND PLAAAAAY" he too was quoting from the movie. But more than that, The Warriors captured the energy and vibe of New York in that time and place. While the look and feel of the movie can feel a little stilted now (some of the exteriors were clearly shot on a soundstage and not the streets of the Big Apple) it neatly captured that punk rock/Studio 54 duality of New York in the late 1970s. The Orphans leader looks like a Ramones reject and more than one gang featured in the opening montage sports satin or sequin jackets. Meanwhile, a roller skating crew rumbles with the Warriors in a men's room and the Furies pinstriped costumes are a clear nod to the then-resurgent New York Yankees, just coming off back-to-back World Series victories.
There are also subtle grace notes - the ability of a group to overcome adversity when they work together, a forward leaning view of multiculturalism (The Warriors gang has black members, white members, and Hispanic members), and the idea that justice eventually prevails - mixed in with moments of poignancy - Swan and the crew looking worse for the wear as a group of revelers look at them in revulsion, Fox getting hurled into the path of an oncoming train, and poor Rembrandt feeling all aw shucks awkward around the aggressive women of the Lizzies. There are few "adults" in The Warriors, the most prominent being the unseen DJ whose between song banter acts as a sort of rolling commentary on where the gang is and who just narrowly missed "wasting" them.
This is a movie not just about alienated teens in an urban hellscape but also about the chaos in our country during that turbulent time. Just four years earlier, New York had teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and two years later had experienced a night of looting unseen before or since when the city experienced a total blackout. With our economy stalled and hostages under the Ayatollah's thumb, the idea that a gang could take over a city may have still been farfetched, but the idea that America was a nation in steep decline was not.
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