Retro Review: ‘The Warriors’

In 1979, director Walter Hill and producer Lawrence Gordon took an obscure novel and crafted it into a cult classic unlike any other. With a low budget and short production time, they took audiences to the tough streets of a New York filled with colorfully-costumed gangs over the course of one violent, action-packed night.

Along with all of the other gangs in New York, the Warriors are summoned to a gathering led by the highly respected Cyrus to bring a truce in the city’s underworld. But Cyrus ends up assassinated and the Warriors are set-up to take the fall. In the midst of this storm the Warriors’, Swan must lead his crew back to their home turf of Coney Island while every other garish gang in the city is looking to take them out.

What Walter Hill made with the Warriors is a movie that to this day is unlike any other. The world he constructed is a New York that is as gritty as Mean Streets, Across 110th Street or any of the other crime films of its era. However those populating this world are hyper-realized characters who would be more at home in a comic book than anywhere in the real world. No street gang in real life would don baseball uniforms and face paint or roller skate, but in the world of the Warriors that is exactly how a fearsome gang of thugs rolls. Nothing in this realistic world is real and the result is something like an edgy violent fairy tale about a group of antiheroes on their incredible journey home and vanquish evildoers beckoning them to “come out and play”. To this end we have have a storyteller in the form of Lynne Thigpen as the radio DJ who pops in to recap what is going on in the hippest way possible.

While on this surface this flick is typified as dude-bro macho flick, the very core of this movie is so much more. The very heart and soul of the Warriors rests in the performances and chemistry of Michael Beck and Deborah Van Valkenburgh as two broken people trying to survive the best they can. On this particular night they find each other at the right moment in time. Outside of these two the bond shared between the members of the Warriors feels incredibly strong, these are a group of guys from different races, sexualities, and backgrounds who have found each other as a surrogate family. True, their enforcer Ajax (played by a young James Remar) is not shy about being a bigoted misogynist, but this leads to him being handcuffed to a park bench by an undercover cop (played by future Oscar winner Mercedes Ruehl in an early role) so he does get his just desserts for it.

While the Warriors did mediocre box office business and received terrible reviews upon its release, it is one of those movies that had that certain spark. To this day there is a cult fandom surrounding this movie that has only gotten stronger over the decades. This has generated comics, video games, and other pieces of media to expand on the universe of the Warriors. Walter Hill had to walk a fine line between the grounded and the theatrical and he nailed it to perfection in a movie the likes of which could probably not be duplicated again.