New York's Dumbest Street Gangs
By David Skolnick
The Warriors (Paramount, 1979) – Director: Walter Hill. Writers: David Shaber & Walter Hill (s/p); Sol Yurick (novel). Cast: Michael Beck, James Remar, Dorsey Wright, Brian Tyler, David Harris, Tom McKitterick, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, David Patrick Kelly & Roger Hill. Color, 92 minutes.
Hollywood has a laundry list of films made in the 1970s that truly capture the grime, grit, disgust and strange violent charm of New York City during that decade. We recognize them – particularly those of us who grew up there – right away: The French Connection, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, The Seven-Ups, and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, to name a few.
Then there's The Warriors. I was 11 when this movie came out in early 1979, and after just a few days in the theaters, it had a reputation. I heard stories that people were killed at the movies watching it, there was widespread violence and you risked your health going to see it. Talk spread quickly and Paramount agreed to pay for extra security at movie theaters that screened the film. As it turned out, three people died going to or from this movie, but none in New York City or in a theater though there were some incidents of vandalism and isolated cases of violence while the film was shown. But that wasn't that uncommon. Three years later, I witnessed serious fighting at a theater in Staten Island that was screening Rocky III.
Of course, the urban legend of The Warriors intrigued me as a kid, but not enough for me to spend any effort during these last 34-plus years since its release for me to watch it. It showed up on Amazon Prime as a free film during my 30-day trial period so I watched it.
Alas, the film hardly lives up to its reputation. In reality, it's a terrible movie filled with awful acting, plot holes you could drive a subway train through, and some of the most ridiculous characters you can imagine.
Cyrus (Roger Hill), the leader of the Gramercy Riffs, the largest and most powerful street gang in New York City, calls a meeting in the Bronx of the top 100 gangs in the five boroughs to tell them to stop fighting each other and take control of the city away from the Mafia and the police. Each gang is asked to bring nine representatives, and no weapons. How the top 100 are picked and why they were asked to have nine members – perhaps they were going to play baseball later – are never addressed. For anyone to believe that no one would bring a weapon to a park in which enemies would be standing next to each other is absurd. But much of this film doesn't make sense so we'll move on.
Among the gangs at the big meeting are skinheads, a black group dressed in disco gear, Asians dressed in what looks like uniforms from a Chinese laundry, rednecks in overalls, a group of guys in Hawaiian shirts, and mimes wearing top hats and suspenders. Who's going to be afraid of a mime gang? Do they pretend to rob and beat up people while trapped in an imaginary box?
Also attending are the film's “heroes” – the Warriors, a racially mixed gang of blacks and whites who hail from Coney Island. Director Walter Hill wanted them all to be black, but Paramount nixed that idea. The book the movie is based on had the gang as a mix of blacks and Hispanics. Hollywood had a near heart attack with an all-black gang of supposed anti-heroes. Imagine if it was a black/Hispanic group.
At the meeting, Cyrus is killed, causing a lot of chaos. Apparently his vision of the gangs working together would have failed because nearly everyone runs for their lives in fear when the cops arrive. Cyrus' murderer is Luther (Kelly), leader of the Rogues, who shoots him because he “likes doing things like that,” which we learn later. Luther and the Rogues see a member of the Warriors witness the shooting. Despite all the mayhem and yelling, everyone hears the gang’s false accusation the Warriors killed Cyrus. Well, not everyone. The Warriors' clueless leader Cleon (Wright) rushes to Cyrus' aid after the shooting. The Riffs, seeing Cleon's Warriors' jacket, beat him up and likely kill him. We never see him again without a clear explanation. We'll leave it at he's dead.
That leaves Swan (Beck) in charge. His goal is to get the Warriors back to Coney Island from the Bronx as it's the gang's home turf and the members will be safe there. This is a stupid plan as plenty of other gangs know the Warriors are from Coney Island and if they want to get them, they can head over to the Wonder Wheel and wait for the Warriors to return. Even so, the Warriors get on a subway train heading for home. I'll cut the Warriors some slack because at this point they don't realize the other gangs are trying to kill them as they're being blamed for Cyrus' death. With about 25 minutes left in the film, they figure this out yet they still head for Coney Island.
The Warriors encounter a number of gangs along the way to Coney Island, and are able to kick the collective asses of each gang. The gangs that try to take out the Warriors seem to be pretty low in the pecking order. One of the first gangs they encounter is the Orphans. That they live only a few minutes from the park where the big meeting was held and weren't invited tells us they're pathetic. The Orphans are accommodating. They are the only other gang in New York that doesn't know the Warriors are wanted by the Riffs dead or alive, and are willing to let them pass through their turf.
That is until Mercy (Van Valkenburgh, who also played one of Ted Knight's daughters in the awful Too Close for Comfort TV sitcom), a mouthy girl who hangs with the Orphans, makes fun of them for not fighting the Warriors. The Warriors have no problem beating up the Orphans. After causing that problem, Mercy follows the Warriors and she eventually becomes Swan's girl. Yeah, don't ask me to explain that.
While all of this is going on, a black female DJ becomes the film's narrator telling the story of the Warriors, summarizing the action in somewhat of a street code and telling the other gangs what's happening. I never noticed anyone in the film actually listening to the radio, but she has a number of scenes.
The eight remaining Warriors keep splitting up as they run into other problems, such as a fire being set to the subway tracks. That forces them to walk to the next station to grab another train. Despite that, they still don't realize they're being hunted. In one scene, Fox (Thomas G. Waites in an uncredited role) fights with a cop and rolls onto the tracks and is killed when a train comes. Why is Waites not in the credits and killed early on in the film? I wondered and learned that Waites and the director didn't get along. Waites, who was originally cast as the lead in this movie, was fired a few weeks into the filming and rather than replace him with another actor, they kill his character.
At one point, four of the Warriors meet the Baseball Furies, one of the oddest gangs in a movie filled with odd gangs. They paint their faces, dress like baseball players and use bats (the wooden objects, not the animals) as their weapons of choice. They wear white baseball uniforms with black pinstripes a la the New York Yankees. The biggest difference between the Furies and the Yankees is the latter knows how to use bats. The Warriors have little trouble beating the Furies, easily taking away their bats and using the weapons against them. We get this classic line from Ajax (Remar), one of the Warriors: “I'll shove that bat up your ass and turn you into a popsicle.”
Even among gang members, Ajax is extraordinary stupid. After the fight, he decides he's going to have fun with a woman sitting by herself on a park bench in the middle of the night. Surprise, the woman (Mercedes Ruehl, who went on to a better films and won an Oscar) turns out to be an undercover cop. She cuffs Ajax's wrist to the park bench without him noticing. The cops arrest him and that's the last we see of him. I don't know about you, but I'd notice if I was being handcuffed.
That leaves us with six gang members and Mercy. Three of them – Vermin, Cochise and Rembrandt – run into a group of women at Union Square, and the Warriors are easily seduced. I could tell right away that they've got to be in a female gang looking to take out the Warriors, but this logical thinking is lost on guys named Vermin, Cochise and Rembrandt. The last guy is named for the artist, as he's the gang member who tags their name. The girls, who are members of the Lizzies, bring the trio back to their hangout, where things start to get hot and heavy – or do they? The Lizzies say they are exacting revenge for Cyrus' murder and pull out a variety of weapons, cutting one of the Warriors with a knife. Despite the close range, several shots fired at the Warriors miss. The three get out of there, but at least they learn that they're being hunted and the reason.
At the same time, Swan is on his own and goes to the 96th Street subway station, where he meets up with Mercy, who's wearing a jacket. Swan asks about the jacket. Why? Well, Mercy stole it because she heard the cops were looking for a girl in a pink shirt. All she did was put the jacket over the pink top. Yeah, that's going to fool a lot of people, particularly the cops and other gangs. Oh, and never in the movie does anyone say a girl is with the Warriors. Minor details. The two make out in a subway tunnel, have an argument, and end up at Union Square.
At that station, Swan is followed by a guy on roller skates and overalls, kind of a hillbilly extra from Roller Boogie. The rest of the Warriors meet up and ask about Ajax, but not Fox, who's dead. The roller skater is part of a gang, the Punks. The rest don't wear roller skates, but they do wear overalls. That there are any gangs in New York wearing overalls is bizarre. But the fight scene in a subway bathroom between the Punks and the Warriors is probably the best in the film despite the toilet doors looking like they're made of paper as heads go through them with great ease.
A number of things kept going through my head as this film progressed. First, how could the Warriors be this clueless? Second, if the other gangs wanted the Warriors dead, why were the Lizzies the only ones to use guns? If the nine Warriors who went to the Bronx for the big meeting were representatives of the gang, why didn't they find a pay phone and call the rest of the members for help? Why do they think they'll be safe in Coney Island? Why return there after finding out that every street gang in the city wants them for killing Cyrus?
As the remaining Warriors get on a subway train heading to Coney Island, we see some guy from another gang talking to the new leader of the Riffs saying he saw who killed Cyrus. Yeah, why believe this guy when a bunch of people screamed about the Warriors after the murder?
The Warriors get off at the Stillwell Avenue (in the heart of Coney Island) subway exit the next morning. “This is what we fought all night to get back to?” Swan tells the others. Because they were the representatives at the Bronx meeting, you'd think the rest of the Warriors would be waiting for them or at least be a little worried. You'd be wrong. We never see any other Warriors and no others are ever mentioned in the film.
But the Rogues with Luther are waiting for them. Luther says why he killed Cyrus and Swan challenges him to a one-on-one fight. Luther agrees and pulls out a gun, but Swan throws his switchblade as it goes off. The bullet hits nobody, but Luther has a switchblade stuck in his arm. A wide shot shows hundreds of Riffs standing to the side, a few feet away from the small group of surviving Warriors and the few dozen Rogues. The Riffs must be the strong, silent types. They hear everything with the new leader of the Riffs telling Swan, “You Warriors are good, real good,” to which Swan responds, “The best.” Wait a second. All they did was beat up some lower-level gangs and get away from the Lizzies without being shot. That's not exactly “good,” “real good,” or “the best.”
The Riffs take care of the Rogues and the female DJ dedicates Joe Walsh's “In the City” to the Warriors as the surviving gang members walk along the beach to who knows where. Thankfully, they didn't walk to a sequel.
Walsh, who was in the Eagles while having a solo career at the same time, cut a different version of this song with the band for its album, “The Long Run.”
For most of the actors, except Ruehl, this film was their cinematic highlight. (As none of the others were even decent actors that should come as no surprise.) Hill, the director, had a respectable career as writer and producer of the Alien film franchise as well as the director and writer of the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte film 48 Hours, in which he cast a few of the actors from The Warriors in smaller roles.