Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Warriors (Hill. 1979)

"Warriors...come out to plaaay..."

Some movies do not have to be all that great to garner a loyal fan base. Very few would argue that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a "good movie", yet it has been running in midnight theatres for years. Another great example of a less-than-decent movie that has gained considerable cult-classic status is the 1979 gang war movie, The Warriors. Directed by Walter Hill and VERY loosely based on a novel by the same name (that is very loosely based on Anabasis by Xenophon), The Warriors is one of my favorite anytime movies. I say that because I can literally watch it at any time and still enjoy it just as much as the time before. Admittedly, it is far from being an actual example of good filmmaking, but it serves the purpose of a movie based on such ridiculous subject matter.

The movie takes place "sometime in the future" in a version of New York City that sees the streets overrun by gangs. The opening credit sequence, which is very long, explains that Cyrus (the leader of the biggest gang in New York) has called a summit to which all gangs should send a designated roster of unarmed members. The resident gang on Coney Island goes by The Warriors and they are skeptic about sending their men into such a meeting without any way of protecting themselves. In the grand scheme of things, The Warriors are pretty small potatoes and would rather follow the rules than stir up trouble with New York's biggest gang. They all reluctantly agree to follow the rules of the gang summit.

This elongated opening credit sequence is important because it introduces each character, the plot and the point of the entire film all in the first moments. The director, Walter Hill, decided that he needed a faster way to introduce the plot in order to promptly kick off the action in the movie. I cannot stress enough that this part of the film seems to drag on forever, but if you can stick it through the formulaic dialogue that introduces the action, you will be rewarded with an overall pleasant experience.

The gathering of New York gangs, if thought about, is actually a pretty terrifying scene. The shear mass of gang members in one area is like a nightmare for your average major-city dweller. Cyrus delivers a charismatic message posing the idea that if all gang members in New York combined to make a super gang they would outnumber the cops and be able to run the streets. He stresses his points with his now-famous "Can you dig it?" catchphrase and each time he says it he is met with wild applause from the densely populated audience. Cyrus, played by Roger Hill, is an interesting character because he seems to be able to keep every gang in check. Though you know he is a bad guy, you strangely respect him as someone who unites people.

All of that ends when Cyrus is suddenly shot from the crowd. The viewing audience knows right away that it was Luther (David Patrick Kelly) of the aptly named "Rogues" who fired the shot. Luther wastes little time before blaming The Warriors for the assassination and the rest of the action flows from there. The Warriors are now miles away from home and will have to fight their way back to their beloved Coney Island through not only police, but every other gang in the city. The Warriors, of course, have no idea that they have been blamed for killing Cyrus, but they still have an understanding that the gang truce in no longer active after the messiah-like leader was killed.

What makes The Warriors so interesting is Hill's visual style as a director. Everything from costumes to extended panning cameras instill a sense of a dystopian world. I mean, New York in the 70s was a pretty rough place to be, so it had to take some work to make the future look worse than the actual times. Every aspect of the film is strictly staged and characters sometimes seem telepathic in their ability to be in the right place at the right moment. The major flaw of the movie is easily the dialogue that could be called the opposite of Tarantino-like. Every single line is unnatural in delivery. Not all of the actors in The Warriors are bad, but when you let the frame of the camera dictate who is allowed to speak and set up all conversation in a linear, A-B style, you pretty much shrug off the desire for realistic characters. But is anything in the film supposed to feel realistic?

My biggest peeve with the movie is how it has been re-marketed as a great action thriller. The Warriors is not that. Rather than making an everyday action movie, Hill decided to make a heavily stylized statement about violence and overall male testosterone. It does not promote violence in the way that other movies can, but it is not as anti-violence as its own source material. In other words, it is far more complicated than it seems on the surface.

If you pressed me for an answer I would say that this film became a midnight, cult-smash because it features an array of elaborate costumes and people seem to like dressing up when they hit the midnight cinema. It is not as fun as Rock Horror and it isn't as "overlooked" in its own being as a film like Plan 9 from Outer Space. I think it was just a film that people were not ready for at the time of its release. In 2013, it seems pretty tame. The acting is below average mainly because the dialogue is atrocious. But the story is compelling and the uniquely slow camera work and artistic design is straight out of graphic-novel-nerd heaven. A movie like this is not for everyone, but if you can put up with slow action that is made up for by an original artistic style, then The Warriors is for you.

The Warriors: C+

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