After 25 years, `The Warriors' is still standing

An early success from comic books

July 17, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Walter Hill's The Warriors, the last great American art-and-exploitation film, celebrates its 25th anniversary with a midnight show tonight at the Charles Theatre.

To beat out several rivals, including Phil Kaufman's ebullient The Wanderers, Paramount Pictures rushed The Warriors into theaters in early 1979, with advertising that highlighted its incendiary gangs-of-New-York plot: "These are the Armies of the Night. They are 100,000 strong. They outnumber cops five to one. They could run New York ... " (Paramount offered theaters extra security after pundits linked teenage killings to screenings of the movie.)

But from the moment producer Lawrence Gordon handed Sol Yurick's original novel to Hill (who had made the great Charles Bronson vehicle Hard Times and the cult action film The Driver for Gordon), the writer-director knew how to fashion it into a breakthrough motion picture, with the emphasis on motion.

In a phone interview this week, Hill said that he fixed on "a scene early in the book where kids are reading a comic-book version of the Anabasis": Xenophon's account of 10,000 Greek mercenaries making a hard, long retreat through hostile territories. The allusion gave a classical dimension to Yurick's realistic tale of a Coney Island crew fighting back to its home turf after a disastrous gang convention in the Bronx.

For Hill, the comic book was the movie.

"This was utterly and completely about my infatuation with the American comic book and my attempt to make a movie within the style of the comic books I grew up on - not Mickey Mouse or superheroes, but the darker comic books put out by EC," the brand known for unabashed horror and suspense. "The movie has a mixture of silliness and good humor and menace that I think is explicable and defensible only in comic-book terms."

Hill packed The Warriors with comic-book hyperbole from the very first shot: Coney Island's pink-and-white neon "Wonder Wheel" glowing in the dark. It's a bit like a gambler's wheel of fortune, and the Coney gang known as the Warriors will need all the help it can get.

At that doomed Bronx conclave, a messianic leader named Cyrus, head of the Gramercy Riffs, aims to confederate the gangs and start taking over New York, neighborhood by neighborhood. But the psychotic Rogues pick Cyrus off and pin the assassination on the Warriors. The movie resembles Watership Down and M as much as it does Xenophon. The gang faces a youth-crime underground organized around a female DJ (Lynne Thigpen) who issues orders with rock standards like "Born to Run." We see only Thigpen's lips, in extreme close-up, almost kissing her mike as she silkily speaks into it.

Hill and his cinematographer, Andrew Laszlo, toy with perspective and color, transforming Gotham into a perilous and fantastic carnival. (The movie marked Hill's first lengthy stay in the city; his reaction was, "What a terrific place to shoot a comic book!") Hill didn't have the time or money to create comic-book chapter headings and "splash pages," but he did use wipes - visible edits that tear like pages cleanly ripped across the screen - to cut from sequence to sequence.

Hill choreographs the action, organizing the commanding Gramercy Riffs into Spartan phalanxes that visually spearhead entire scenes. "Despite the violence," Hill says, "It looks more like a dancer's film, which I liked."

So why did urban audiences identify with it so viscerally?

"The traditional Blackboard Jungle take on gangs was to show adults looking at a social problem. I wanted to explore the experience within the gangs, from the kids' point of view."

Hill says he was mistaken for allowing adult values to intrude on the action at all, notably in a scene where a policewoman played by the young Mercedes Ruehl ("a wonderful actress, I hasten to add") lures the Warriors' hothead fighter, Ajax, to a Central Park bench and then slaps cuffs on him. Comments Hill, wryly: "I should have at least let Ajax go."

To cover various implausibilities and compromises (including multiracial casting for most of the gangs), Hill felt the movie should begin with a title card reading, "Sometime in the future." Of course, he meant the near future, but studio executives objected. "They thought that if you said something like that, people would think you were talking about rocket ships."

Hill now admits, "Things may have worked out for the best. Films are never completed, only abandoned. You never use all the ideas you have. I was in an airport on my way to Europe the day it opened; I read an early review which was lousy, and figured, well, it's not going to be a critics' movie. And here we are talking about it 25 years later."

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