It’s tough to make a good gang movie (and, no, don’t mention “West Side Story” or “The Cross and the Switchblade”), but 1979 saw two of them: “The Wanderers” (click here for my review) and “The Warriors.” Here I’ll focus on “The Warriors” in this expanded version of my original review (I’ve formatted it to fit all my other reviews and given more information – I haven’t changed my opinions about the film and its actors, though). You’ll enjoy “The Warriors” … can you dig it?
(1979; 92 minutes; rated R; directed by Walter Hill and starring Michael Beck, James Remar and Deborah van Valkenburgh)
CAN YOU DIG IT? YES!
(NOTE: I expanded this review twice – once on Sept. 6, 2014, and then again on Sept. 25, 2015, after a story appeared about the actors recreating the gang’s last subway ride. Click here to read the story.)
It’s nice that “The Warriors” continues to have life through cable television movie channels. It’s not great, but is watchable. “The Warriors” is a little-remembered gang film from the late ’70s and offers a stylish blast off in the credits, with the outstanding visuals and smash cuts between the various gangs headed to a big meeting in New York City.
Unfortunately, the cinematography falls off a bit after the first few minutes, but it remains solid throughout the film with its scenes throughout the seedy nighttime of the 1970s in the city. There has long been reports about a remake with “Top Gun’s” Tony Scott in the director’s chair, but his death in 2012 has delayed the project. However, there is a Facebook page about the remake and it is said to be set in Los Angeles. Sadly, that doesn’t sound like an auspicious remake idea.
Now, back to the original.
The focus of the story is a gang from Coney Island called “The Warriors” (naturally). They cross the city via the subway for the citywide meeting that’s supposed to unite all the gangs into one big criminal enterprise. However, the cops break it up and the group then is forced to fight, or “bop” in the jargon of the time, their way back home when the organizing gang boss is shot. His trademark motto was “Can you dig it?” and remains the film’s trademark line today.
Of course the Warriors are blamed for killing him and thereby breaking the gang truce. It will take them the rest of the film to have enough time for their innocence to be established and for them to prove their toughness.
Throughout, the Warriors battle themselves and everyone else. Walter Hill, who would go on to direct “48 Hours” and more recently “Deadwood” for cable as well as having received a story credit for “Aliens” (click here for my review), brings Sol Yurick’s gang novel to life. “The Warriors” is one case where both the film and the book are tepid, although national reviewers at the time gave the film OK marks. I’m not ragging on it too much, since there are much worse films with better pedigrees, but this one isn’t a standard by which others are judged.
It’s too bad that “The Warriors” is not as visually stylish throughout its entire run as in the opening credits. Still, coolness prevails through other gangs like the bat-swinging, face-painted “Baseball Furies,” including Robert Townsend in an uncredited role; the brutal “Turnbull AC’s” (“Those were some desperate dudes!” one Warrior says and another answers, “So were we!”); a bunch of tough mimes; and the subway gang with its roller-skating recon man that meets the Warriors in a restroom showdown.
Another gang movie of the same year, “The Wanderers” (click here for my review) is a much superior film in plot, character development as well as having a much better soundtrack and cast, including a post “Animal House” and pre-“Raiders of the Lost Ark” Karen Allen. Still, “The Warriors” doesn’t have to hang its head in shame, either.
As for the stars in “The Warriors,” here’s a rundown of the gang:
- Michael Beck, with experience in soap operas, plays “Swan.” He’s the gang’s “war chief” and takes over when the gang’s leader is killed. Beck does an OK job as the stoic leader who has to keep his troupe in line. Beck could have made this role a stepping stone to greater things, but I don’t believe he has the acting chops. He would go on a year later to be in “Xanadu” with Olivia Newton-John (not a real highlight on any performer’s resume).
- James Remar, who would go on to play on TV’s “Dexter,” plays explosive gang member “Ajax.” He first challenges Beck for leadership of the isolated group but then bludgeons his way through the rest until he gets arrested. Remar does a solid job with the role (better than Beck with his), but, again, there isn’t any one outstanding performance by an actor in the film. Remar has notched a prolific career mostly in television (with 152 credits over five decades – “The Warriors” was his second film and he’s also been in “Django Unchained”).
- David Harris plays “Cochise” and does a workmanlike job with a character set in place pretty much to frame the ostensible headliners of Beck and Remar. Harris was also in the brilliant “A Soldier’s Story” as well as TV series such as “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
- I would have liked to have seen more of Dorsey Wright as “Cleon,” who was the leader of “The Warriors” until being accused of killing the main gang leader and disappearing under a mass attack by rival gang members. Wright looked to be able to explode on cue while mostly keeping his self-control. He probably could have elevated any supporting character and even done better than Remar as “Ajax.” Wright, like others here, has had a limited career, but has been in some excellent films (such as “Ragtime” and “The Hotel New Hampshire”).
- Other gang members including Brian Tyler as “Snow;” Tom McKitterick in his only acting credit as “Cowboy;” and Marcelino Sanchez as “Rembrandt.” “The Warriors” was not a real career building for any in the supporting cast and many had limited careers in front of the camera.
Other key players include:
- The villain in “The Warriors’” is David Patrick Kelly, who plays “Luther.” He’s the maniac who leads The Rogues into disaster by blaming the Warriors for killing the gang leader. Kelly is volcanically good here, but doesn’t have much to work with. Kelly was also the main bad guy in 1984’s little-remembered but pretty “Dreamscape” and got he dropped off a cliff by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in 1985’s “Commando” (click here for my review).
- Deborah Van Valkenburgh is the female lead “Mercy” and the love interest for Beck. She doesn’t do a bad job – although her acting is bad in some scenes – but she, like others here, doesn’t elevate herself or her character with any significant effort. She would go on to co-star in Hill’s “Streets of Fire” in 1984 and to a long list of TV movies and series, with “Castle” being among her latest credits.
- One very interesting character is a DJ who broadcasts to the gangs (and she spins a song “Nowhere to Run” and dedicates it to the Warriors). The DJ is played by Lynne Thigpen in a role where you only see her lips at a microphone but instantly recognize the voice. Thigpen would go on to roles in “Tootsie” and playing the parent opposing the Morgan Freeman character in 1989’s “Lean on Me.” The visual touch of only seeing her lips is the second-best visual after the opening scenes of all the gangs.
- Other actors who would do more, later in their careers include versatile screen and TV performer Mercedes Ruehl as an undercover police officer; and Sonny Landham, who plays a nondescript policeman. Landham would strut his stuff in a much bigger role as “Billy” in 1987’s “Predator ” (click here for my review).
Hill does try to inject some personality in the characters with the love interest between Beck and van Valkenburgh and through the interplay between the Warriors. Still, it’s pretty thin in this area and while Hill is a somewhat great filmmaker, he couldn’t do much with this one.
Although rated R (for language and violence via the MPAA), “The Warriors” is a typical ’70s R – just about any violence or cursing landed that rating back in the day. By today’s E! Network or MTV or TruTV offerings, it is pretty tame. You don’t have to worry about gory physical violence.
“The Warriors” was out of the Top 10 films at the box office in 1979, but it did make $22.4 million on a budget of $4 million, according to Wiki. The top film of the year was the horrendously overrated crapfest “Kramer vs. Kramer” with $106.2 million. Here are some film from 1979 that I have reviewed:
- “French Postcards” (a great, underrated film) – click here for my review
- “The Electric Horseman” (tremendous) – click here for my review
- “All That Jazz” (outstanding by Bob Fosse) – click here for my review
- “The Jericho Mile” (a great TV movie) – click here for my review
- “Meatballs” (a great Bill Murray comedy) – click here for my review
- “Going in Style” (simply terrific) – click here for my review
- “Salem’s Lot” (excellent TV vampire flick) – click here for my review
- “ffolkes” (a tepid thriller) – click here for my review
Some cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- Tony Danza was offered the lead (this was before his first film – with Michelle Pfeiffer in her own screen debut – in 1980’s “The Hollywood Knights” – click here for my review). He turned it down and did “Taxi” on TV instead.
- The Warriors’ vests in the film are faux leather.
- The gang the “Baseball Furies” were created because Hill was a baseball fan and also their makeup was a bit of homage to the rock bank “Kiss.”
- Directly from IMDb.com: “Sol Yurick wrote the original book as a rebuttal to the romanticized view of street gangs presented in West Side Story (1961) based on his experience as a New York City welfare department worker.”
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “President Ronald Reagan was a fan of the film, even calling the film’s lead actor, Michael Beck, to tell him he had screened it at Camp David and enjoyed it.”
- Click here to read IMDb.com’s extensive trivia page about “The Warriors.”
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