Quick Cuts: The Warriors (1979)

One of the greatest challenge of film criticism is writing a positive review and remaining interesting. Negativity is fun to write and to read, allowing the author to take a more comedic edge and encouraging the use of fanciful comparison. Things like “the cinematography was executed by a epileptic lilliputian standing on the shoulders of fifteen other equally epileptic lilliputians” is much more entertaining than “the cinematography is effective and subtly gorgeous.” The Warriors is an incredibly well-crafted and entertaining film, in an incredibly difficult to articulate way. Writing an honest but worthy review is a daunting task.

Like most great movies, the plot is simple: a gang called the Warriors has been framed for a crime that has angered the other gangs of New York. They must return to their safe territory in Coney Island without being killed by rival gangs, including the gang that is actually responsible for the crime and actively hunting them.

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The Warriors

On paper, nothing about this movie should work. The characters are underdeveloped archetypes at various levels of acting. Some of the young actors are fine, but others take the emotions to eleven lending a campy effect. Adding to the camp value are the outlandish matching gang costumes which instantly date the movie and make us take the gangs less seriously.

But something about this style works, and not in a “so-bad-it’s-good” way.  In both the iconic radio segments and the segments featuring the sunglasses-at-night wearing warchief of the Gramercy Riffs, we see unnatural framing and lighting used to exude an ethereal essence of pure coolness. This essence permeates the film. We look back at the affectations of 1979 not to laugh, but to be transported to that time. These gangs are the kings of cool, and the confident overly stylized cinematography makes us believe in them, which allows the maximum enjoyment of the film’s campy elements without dismissing the integrity of the film.

The uneven acting and often unbelievable dialogue at first seems at odds with the visual flair of director Walter Hill and cinematographer Andrew Laszlo. This was the main criticism leveled by critics at the time who mainly gave the film negative reviews. The film is unbelievable, but in my opinion that was the intent. The hyper-stylized gangs of the movie were an exaggerated presentation of reality. New York gangs may have seemed cool (and still do) but in the end they’re just a bunch of teenagers clinging to each other for a sense of identity and the affirmation they received at neither home nor school.

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Deborah Van Valkenburgh and Michael Beck in The Warriors. No, I’m not going to talk about gender politics in this review, I trust you can figure out why.

The Warriors is based on a novel by Sol Yurick. Many of the darker elements from the book were taken out of the movie, both to make the characters more likable and the ending more satisfying. The lighter tone could easily be criticized, but in my opinion the film trades the direct darkness of the book for implicit darkness communicated through style. The tragedy of The Warrior’s home lives are left to the imagination, but still come across for the attentive viewer. The gangster affect and rash actions are a front put up by The Warriors to better fit in with the group and impress one another. The film is doing the same. The effortless over-stylization juxtaposed against a basic script and average actors illustrates the truth about the Warriors and indeed all of the gangs. Coolness is a cover, they’re all just lost in the world. But what an entertaining cover it is.

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