Movie Review: The Warriors (1979)


Title: The Warriors
Release Date:  February 9, 1979
Director: Walter Hill
Production Company: Lawrence Gordon Productions
Summary/Review:

Yet another cult film I’ve never watched, The Warriors is take on the crime-ridden New York City of the 1970s by way of an Ancient Greek story.  The Warriors are a gang based in Coney Island who with dozens of other gangs travel to the Bronx for a summit called by a charismatic leader Cyrus (Roger Hill).  Cyrus proposes unifying all the gangs and working together against the police to control the city but before he can finish his speech he is assassinated.  (The killer appears to receive his gun from the cops and thus be a police informer but this is never followed-up upon so maybe I misread what was happening).

The Warriors are falsely accused of killing Cyrus and have to flee back to Coney Island for the safety of their home turn, pursued by all the other gangs and the police.  They lose their leader in the initial scuffle and war chief Swan (Michael Beck) takes over shepherding the rest of the gang on their journey home.  He’s challenged by the heel of the gang Ajax (James Remar) who prefers conflict to diplomacy.  The cast overall does a good job of capturing the youth and vulnerability of the gang members and seeing the story from their point of view rather than a societal judgment.  The only actor who didn’t really work for me is David Patrick Kelly as Luther, who really hams things up, although he also delivers the movie’s most famous line.

For a 1970s film, the cast is very diverse although the production company insisted on white actors in the lead.  For a story about gangs of men, the women in the movie have a lot of agency and call out the men on their bullshit.  The most prominent woman character is Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) who initially taunts The Warriors but then joins them as a valuable contributor to their effort to get back to Brooklyn as well as a romantic interest to Swan. There is homophobia and attempted sexual assault as you might expect from gangsters in a 70s film, but it’s almost all from Ajax, while the rest of the gang appear almost noble.

For an action film, this movie takes things slow, reveling in the scenery of the on-location settings and the quirky costumes of the various gangs while building the tension.  This really works to the film’s advantage, although the choreography of the fight scenes is also good.  Somehow the cartoonish fantasy element of the story also undergirds the gritty reality of the movie and allows for some great character moments. I was particularly impressed by a scene where the exhausted Warriors share a subway car with some wealthy kids and the contrast of their lives is quietly emphasized.

I ended up liking this movie a whole lot more than I expected I would and think it’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking.

Rating: ****1/2