In much the same way in which The Good, The Bad and the Ugly created a vaguely sci-fi tableau by using an abstract era of our own history, The Warriors manages to be one-third Greek Odyssey, one-third future nightmare and one-third comic book movie. Tonally it feels like a grim urban fairy tale. Despite the trappings that date the film somewhat, the tale told in The Warriors is timeless and plays out like a distant sequel to 300.
That's because it's inspired, in part, by another story of Spartan bravery called Anabasis written by the legendary Greek soldier and scribe Xenophon around 370 B.C.. Anabasis (literally "Going Up") tells the story of an army of ten-thousand Greek mercenaries hired by a pretender to the Persian throne. After some initial success, the army's patron is killed, rendering their mission pointless. To make matters worse, the mercenaries are now trapped deep in enemy territory; strangers in a strange land who are completely devoid of supplies, safe passage and trusted allies. In an epic struggle, they're forced to sneak, parlay and fight in order to get back to their own homes.
The Warriors follows the same basic plot structure and the results are arresting. In a hellish future vision of New York City, the place is overrun by hundreds of waring gangs. In a bid for city-wide domination, the charismatic leader of the dominant Gramercy Riffs, Cyrus (Roger Hill), tries to unite all of the gangs together. After arranging a summit meeting, nine unarmed members from each and every gang show up, resulting in a volatile gathering of ten thousand sociopaths.
Although most of the gangs are open to the proposal, the Rogues, led by the psychotic Luther (David Patrick Kelly) are less then enthusiastic. They assassinate Cyrus and then pin the blame on their main rivals, the titular Warriors. Anarchy ensues when a substantial bounty is placed on the collective heads of our anti-heroes. The rest of the film follows the Warriors as they attempt to extricate themselves from the heart of darkness. Along the way they face internal strife when their leader goes M.I.A., encounter surreal enemy gangs like the Baseball Furies, adopt a wayward prostitute seeking deliverance who may be friend or foe, duck police, and navigate traps galore (including one courtesy of the all-female gang The Lizzies).
This film is compulsively watchable and I'm actually dying to see it again. Director Walter Hill, who would go on to helm the classic Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte pairing 48 Hours, creates a lean and mean thrill ride that's hypnotic to watch. In fact, the film's simple and brilliant premise ensures that the ole' action engine gets kicked into overdrive within the first twenty minutes and never cools down. With all of the close calls, rumbles, foot chases and insanity the viewer often feels as breathless as the Warriors themselves as they struggle to keep up.
Hill also does a fantastic job on the action sequences. Instead of filming the fight scenes close up, which is standard procedure for less talented directors, Hill choreographed his encounters in confident detail, pulling the camera back to let the audience watch the battles progress. His judicious use of slow-motion for the occasional "finishing move" also ramps up the "POW"-factor.
The film's gorgeous lighting is also worth mentioning. The rain-slicked streets and lurid signage of a filthy, decrepit pre-Giuliani New York City are frozen here in celluloid amber. Shooting on location at the time was probably a huge pain in the ass for the film-makers but The Warriors is richer for it. No modern-day monster-budget remake could replicate anything so unique and special.
The performances are memorable right across the board. Michael Beck's Swan is the perfect anti-hero: calm under pressure, strong, crafty and no-nonsense. James Remar also goes for broke in his portrayal of Ajax, Swan's main rival for control of the Warriors after their leader goes missing. Remar doesn't look all that intimidating but as soon as the camera starts cranking he's all bravado, threat and petulance. His ultimate Siren-like fate may feel like a cop-out to some but I think it's perfectly in step with the character's recklessness and the film's thematic inspirations.
Brian Tyler's Snow single-handedly epitomizes the film's pop culture iconography. He's a bad-ass dude who rarely speaks above a whisper but when he does, people shut the fuck up and listen. Deborah Van Valkenburgh's Mercy provides much of the film's heart and she does so effortlessly. Unlike most films that shoe-horn a female character into the mix merely due to market research dictates, she's subtlety written and we're kept guessing about her motivations thanks to Van Valkenburgh's sassy take on the part.
Also worth noting is the presence of the late Lynne Thigpen of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? fame (or at least, the presence of her, um...mouth). Thigpen plays an omniscient late-night D.J. who acts as a modern version of a Greek chorus, giving us status reports on the progress of our protagonists. Her distinctive voice is used to tremendous effect.
My award for performance, however, goes to David Patrick Kelly as rival gang leader Luther. Making the most of his preciously short screen time, Kelly displays a memorable spectrum of tics, mannerisms, and weasely behavior, ensuring that you'll remember him forever. The iconic climax in which he clinks glass bottles together and cat-calls our beleaguered heroes in a creepy sing-song voice ("WAR-RIORS! COME OUT TO PLA-AYYYYY!!!") is one of the most unnerving things I've ever seen in a film. The final confrontation is also refreshingly economical and a great exclamation point for the character arcs of Swan and Mercy in particular.
You owe it to yourself to seek this movie out. It's a rich and propulsive experience. Look beyond the dated trappings and you'll discover a timeless and engaging film that was originally overlooked but deserves its current reputation as a cult classic.