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The Test of Time: The Warriors (1979)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

DIRECTED BY WALTER HILL

STARRING MICHAEL BECK, JAMES REMAR, DAVID PATRICK KELLY, ROGER HILL

Warriors…come out to play-ee-ayy!

Come on now, as if there were any other answer to the question of what your all time favorite cinematic gang-fight is. Sure, I dig me some OUTSIDERS too, just as I love BATTLE ROYALE and even WEST SIDE STORY, but when it comes to the preeminent movie royal rumble, the invariable answer has to be Walter Hill’s hyper-violent urban scourge, THE WARRIORS. And believe it or not, the flick actually celebrated its 40th anniversary this month. F*cking insane, I know. Now, in the name of full disclosure, when we pit THE WARRIORS (theatrical cut) up against The Test of Time below, please know that the opinion does not come from a place of loving nostalgia. Truth is, embarrassing as it may be, I can admit to having only seen THE WARRIORS for the first time like seven or eight years ago. I know, ridiculous. Point is, this will not be a lovelorn hagiography, we’re finna give a sobering account of how well (or not) THE WARRIORS has endured since 1979.

Can You Dig It? It’s THE WARRIORS vs. The Test of Time!

THE STORY: Based on the novel written by Sol Yurick, the story of THE WARRIORS was adapted by Walter Hill and David Shaber. However, when it was released, the public also understood that the film was loosely based on the ancient Greek tale Anabasis (depcited in comic-panelling the worse-off Director's Cut released in 2005), a real life story written by the Spartan general Xenophon in 370 BC. The story tells of 10,000 Spartan warriors who join the Persian emperor Cyrus for a massive war in Turkey. Once Cyrus is killed, the Warriors traverse the countryside while fighting various tribes along the way. Also, many forget that, while the story draws on real-life history, the story itself is set sometime in the near future, a fact that is hard to pick up on aesthetic, fashion and technology alone. And so, in THE WARRIORS we essentially have a plot-less scenario in which all out gang-warfare in incited by the biggest and most badass gangster leader in the city, Cyrus. When Cyrus is politically assassinated by a member of the Rogues, Luther (David Patrick Kelly), Cyrus’ death is falsely blamed on The Warriors – a leather-vested, mix-raced gang led by Swan (the Heath Ledger lookalike Michael Beck) and Ajax (boss James Remar) and backed up by Cochise (David Harris), Snow (Brian Tyler), Rembrandt (Marcelino Sanchez) and Cowboy (Tom McKitterick) – thereby putting the squad dead in the sights of all the rivaling NYC gangs.

The Warriors hop on the NYC subway system and slalom across all five crime-ridden boroughs, escaping attack at certain points while vicsiously facing off mano-y-mano with rival gangs. Swan forges alliance with a gang called The Orphans and their leader, Sully (Paul Greco), who allows the Warriors to pass through their territory in the Bronx. But then a gal named Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) gets in between, causing a fight the Warriors and Orphans and forcing Swan and Ajax to hop a train uptown to Manhattan, where our boys get in a ballistic ball-bat bashing bonanza with The Baseball Furies in Riverside Park. Love that scene! Ajax gets the treatment he deserves when trying to sexually assault a woman named Chloe in Central Park, setting up an onslaught from The Lizzies, an all-girl-gang who dupe the Warriors into a sneak attack. A lovely fistfight between the Warriors and the Punks in a public subway terminal restroom ensues, setting up a climactic showdown at Coney Island. Luther is forced to confess to The Rogues that he in fact killed Cyrus, thereby absolving the Warriors and allowing them to walk off into the sunset!

WHAT HOLDS-UP: Having just clocked the crystalline Blu-ray, I can say with the utmost confidence that pretty much everything about THE WARRIORS still holds true. Many facets account for this, but nothing more important than the sheer authenticity of the real-life NYC location shoot Hill and company painstakingly went through. Straight up, THE WARRIORS feels real because it just about is. Shooting from sunup to sundown on real locations throughout the city, there’s such a palpable sense of anarchic danger trapped in the reels of celluloid that you cannot for one second sense a whiff of artifice. No studios, green-screen, sets and comfy environments, these guys were in the literal shit while filming, and you can tell from the opening frames how genuine the imagery is. And frankly, this was by design, as the producers wanted to make an antithetical gang film to the much safer and cleaner WEST SIDE STORY, which did not depict with accuracy the kinds of gang violence perpetrated in NYC at the time. This was the raw antidote to that Oscar-winning cocktail, and the results show. Whether it’s the subway underground, the graffiti-laced storefronts and train-cars, the manic energy and hustle and bustle of the city itself, the perilous nighttime locations, etc. – the sheer look, feel, and vibration emanating from THE WARRIORS instantly transports you to a time and place that feels as veracious as any in real life.

Another absolute point of durability THE WARRIORS boasts is its cool comic-book tableau. Beyond the blood-red dripping Comic titles and credits, the way in which Hill uses comic-panels and old-school edit wipes to frame the story really sort of preserves the film in a kind of timeless amber. Remember, the flick is set in the future, but reverts to old comic book imagery and editing of yore, which makes it almost impossible to tell when the flick actually takes place. And if you can’t tell, how can it truly become weathered by time? Moreover, comic book flicks have become so rampant since 1979, accounting for damn near all of the bog-budget money to be made in Hollywood, that watching THE WARRIORS now feels like a contemporary piece of comic-book pastiche. Watching the film nowadays makes it feel part and parcel of the current zeitgeist rather than a retro anachronism. And as it relates to comic lore, that the film features a collective hero (defined as nine or more main characters) rather than one identified lead protagonist, the film reinforces the comic-book ensemble we’ve come to know in everything from X-MEN to the Umbrella Academy.

Of course, where THE WARRIORS stood out upon release and still holds the strongest now, is the tough muscularity of the fights themselves, and how perfectly mirrored the cinematography is to capture the proper imagery. Shot by Andrew Laszlo (THE FUNHOUSE, STREETS OF FIRE), the brusque visuals in THE WARRIORS are perfectly tailored to the action it’s capturing. I don’t know how else to articulate it, but Hill and Laszlo shoot the fights with unvarnished immediacy, a visceral authenticity, and with an in your-face assault of punch-drunken anarchy that you really feel as if you’re right there on the streets with Swan, Ajax and crew. And not to break them all down, but the two absolute standouts (for me anyway) include The Baseball Furies showdown, and The bathroom brawl with The Punks.

After an enthrallingly kickass chase scene through Riverside Park, set to a gratingly discordant slow-punk track by Barry De Vorzon and The Eagles’ Joe Walsh, The Warriors square off with The Baseball Furies, a mime-faced baseball uniformed gang with baseball bats ready to brain mother*ckers. “I’ll shove that bat up your ass and turn you into a popsicle!” barks Ajax in arguably the most badass threat-quote of all. The scene if brimming with the kind of priapic brio that makes you want to jump right into the action yourself and tart throwing some serious haymakers. Thankfully, we can live vicariously through the characters and not lash out in reality. “Should have known that they were wimps,” says Snow as they leave a gaggle of Furies waylaid on the grass. Fantastic fight scene that holds up very well today!

So too does the brawl with The Punks in the public restroom. Not only does this one up the participants, and therefore victims, but it places the action in a cramped locale rather than a sprawling park, which adds to the sense of enclosed claustrophobia and sense of concentrated physical violence. Pipes, bats, chains, knives, fists, knees, sticks, broken glass, tile walls, wooden doors and more are all on display as deadly weapons in the rumble, making for a wildly chaotic scrum that never for a second get boring or repetitive. With these two cited brawls as examples, it’s the overall coolness of THE WARRIORS that has perhaps withstood the test of time most gracefully. Seriously, THE WARRIORS is simply one of the coolest flicks ever made, and nothing about that unanimous opinion has been altered over the past 40 years.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Shockingly, I have virtually nothing bad to say about THE WARRIORS as it relates to the year 2019. It’s frankly still better than most movies that come out these days, and aside from a few outmoded fashion styles of the day, one can hardly tell when the movie was made or even when it’s set. This has to do with the ancient Greek source material, the decidedly futuristic setting, and the comic book tableau, all of which combine epochs to create a sense of timelessness in the movie.

THE VERDICT: Put it this way: do you have a more favorite gang-warfare flick than THE WARRIORS? If so, your answer is probably a direct derivative of THE WARRIORS, just as BATTLE ROYALE and THE HUNGER GAMES is. Point is, few fight flicks have felt as real and authentically dangerous as THE WARRIORS. The fact that real life gang members harassed the entire two-month shoot – on the real streets of NYC mind you – having large items thrown at them, with epithets hurled and death threats made, you can tell that kind of raw energy was channeled into the reels of film. There’s a palpable sense of peril in THE WARRIORS that cannot be feigned, and has not been matched since 1979!

GET THE WARRIORS ON BLU-RAY HERE

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