Back in the 70’s, the crowd I hung out with didn’t give a rat’s ass about STAR WARS … THE WARRIORS was THE movie to see! The film reportedly resulted in outbreaks of violence, vandalism, and even three deaths – including one up in Boston! – and Paramount Pictures pulled all its advertising, because that’s what adults do! Didn’t matter to us, though… everyone already knew about THE WARRIORS and it’s glorification of violence, and all the neighborhood cool kids just had to catch it (including a certain long-haired wiseass who used to amuse his street corner friends with his “useless knowledge” of old movies).
The myriad street gangs of New York City have declared a truce and gathered together for a big meet called by Cyrus, leader of The Riffs. The charismatic Cyrus whips ’em into a frenzy proposing they all organize into one huge gang to control The Big Apple’s streets (“Can you dig it?”). A psycho named Luther, war chief of The Rogues, assassinates Cyrus, is seen by The Warriors, the cops bust things up (and bust a few heads), Luther pins the murder on The Warriors, and now the truce is broken as The Warriors must run through a gauntlet of gangs to get back to their Coney Island turf alive…
THE WARRIORS is essentially one long, though highly stylized, chase film. Director Walter Hill and co-writer David Shaber (NIGHTHAWKS, LAST EMBRACE) updated Sol Yurick’s 1965 novel and turned it into a comic book orgy of exaggerated violence, complete with a gaudy color scheme and costumed villains, all set to a pulse-pounding synth-rock score by Barry De Vorzon. It was with this film that I first became aware of Hill, who had written the screenplay for Sam Peckinpah’s THE GETAWAY and went on to make some of my favorite movies of the 80’s : THE LONG RIDERS, SOUTHERN COMFORT, 48 HRS.
The Riffs put out the word to get The Warriors via a radio DJ (reminiscent of another 70’s chase film, VANISHING POINT ), and the violence escalates as they encounter gang after gang out to get them. First up is The Orphans, a bunch of non-entities easily dispatched with a Molotov cocktail. Orphans chick Mercy, a street-wise toughie (“I ain’t no whore”), tags along with The Warriors, mainly to set up a little “Romeo and Juliet of the streets” subplot with Warrior war chief Swan to appeal to the females in the audience.
The film’s not about any sappy love story though, but rather the action-packed set pieces: The Baseball Furies, decked out in face paint and (hated around these parts) Yankee pinstripes, wielding baseball bats to take out The Warriors, to which hot-headed Ajax replies, “I’ll shove that bat up your ass and turn you into a popsicle”! The roller-skating Punks menace Swan and Mercy in a desolate subway until their Warrior brethren show up and a violent men’s room brawl takes place. Best of all involves The Lizzies, an all-girl gang who sucker three Warriors to their crash pad to party, only to pull guns and switchblades out before our heroes barely escape with their lives! The climax comes at dawn, as The Warriors finally make it back to Coney Island, only to be confronted by psycho Luther and his Rogues. Asked why he wasted Cyrus, Luther sneeringly replies, “No reason, I just like doing things like that” as he points his gun at Swan and… I won’t spoil the ending; suffice it to say justice is served, and we fade out to the strains of Joe Walsh’s FM hit “In The City”:
Everyone thought Michael Beck (Swan) would be a big breakout star… that is, until he made XANADU the following year and had his cool card immediately pulled! Deborah Van Valkenburgh (Mercy) was every street kid’s dream, an object of lustful desire in a braless pink halter top, with full pouty lips and a sexy overbite – YOWZA! She went on to co-star in the sitcom TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT (1980-83), almost unrecognizable as the sensible daughter of Ted Knight. James Remar plays the meatheaded Ajax (every gang has one), a hunk of bad attitude constantly questioning Swan’s authority, who winds up getting busted hitting on an undercover cop. Remar’s had a decent career since then, appearing in 48 HRS, THE COTTON CLUB, THE PHANTOM, DRUGSTORE COWBOY, and DJANGO UNCHAINED, and as Kim Cattral’s sometimes boyfriend on SEX AND THE CITY from 2002-04. The other Warriors are Dorsey Wright (Cleon), Brian Tyler (Snow), David Harris (Cochise), Tom McKittrick (Cowboy), Marcelino Sanchez (Rembrandt), Terry Mihos (Vermin), and Thomas G. Waite (Fox), who went uncredited and was killed off early after a rift with Hill.
David Patrick Kelly’s Luther was another archetype you’d find in any band of juvenile delinquents, the sociopathic maniac who doesn’t give a shit about anybody or anything but himself. Luther’s taunting chant “Warr-i-ors, come out to play-ay”, accompanying himself by clinking three empty beer bottles stuck on his fingers, was definitely the film’s most imitated scene by kids everywhere, and remains its most iconic. Kelly’s looney-tunes characterization got him noticed, and he’s gone on to act in films like COMMANDO, THE CROW, CROOKLYN, WILD AT HEART, JOHN WICK, and as Jerry Horne on David Lynch’s TWIN PEAKS, both the original series and the recent revival.
Why did kids like me like THE WARRIORS so much? It wasn’t just the stylistic violence that held an appeal: The Warriors were US, or at least a romanticized fantasy version of what we THOUGHT we were back in the day. We didn’t wear colors, our biker friends would disapprove (though a group or two of local yokels did after the film’s release, but they were basically just punk-ass wannabes that no one took seriously), but brothers (and sisters) we were, disaffected, alienated youth who chose to live outside societal norms. We were family, dysfunctional as hell with chips on each shoulder, trying to cope with a world we didn’t understand and didn’t really want to, anyway. THE WARRIORS has taken on cult status as an improbable but enjoyable rock’n’roll fantasy, but back in 1979, the idea of THE WARRIORS mattered… at least to a bunch of street corner “hoodlums” from New Bedford, MA, many of whom sadly died way too young. This one’s for you, Ball’s Corner Boys.