AI’m usually reluctant to watch a film that has been labeled as a “cult film” because many of these films tend to have been critically derided box office bombs that were subsequently rediscovered by hipster or nerdy college students with questionable taste in film. I obviously generalize because there are quite a few quality gems that are considered to be cult films. However, if you look at any list of cult films on the internet, the bad tend to overtake the good (PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, PINK FLAMINGOES, RE-ANIMATOR, SHOWGIRLS, TROLL, and THE WICKER MAN). Another issue I have with watching certain older films is that unless you saw the film around the time it was released, you will not get the same enjoyment from watching the film now for the first time. THE GOONIES is a perfect example of this. A childhood favorite of mine, I have stopped recommending this film to my friends because anyone who watches it now for the first time comes away feeling disappointed.

With these reservations in mind, I recently saw Walter Hill’s 1970’s cult classic about New York City street gangs, THE WARRIORS. Based on Sol Yurick’s novel of the same name, THE WARRIORS is set in an unspecified future that except for explicitly being told we’re in the future, nothing in the film points to an indication that we are actually in the future. I think the only reason the story is set in the future is so that we can more easily believe NYC has been almost overrun by street gangs and to explain the lack of normal citizens walking around a very busy city. Cyrus (Roger Hill), the leader of a very prominent gang, calls for a meeting of the representatives of all the city’s gangs, including the titular gang, The Warriors. At the meeting, Cyrus calls for unity and peace among the gangs and a pooling of resources to take over the city. However, Cyrus is suddenly shot dead by Luther (David Patrick Kelly), leader of the Rogues. No one except for a member of the Warriors sees Luther commit the murder and in the chaos that ensues from the shooting and the subsequent appearance of the police, the Warriors end up being blamed for the murder. Consequently, the Warriors find themselves on the run, being chased by every gang member looking to have their head as they try to head back to their Coney Island turf.

I was born in 1975 in a different country so I was too young to know what 70’s American gang culture was like. However, I suspect gangs had more white people in them (hell, my former Bible teacher in junior high was an ex-gang member and he was as white as Casper) and they all seemed big on adopting cool names with logos patched onto denim and leather jackets. My point: Don’t go into this film expecting a hard-core, violent view of modern thug life. THE WARRIORS fits more along the lines of a grittier version of WEST SIDE STORY but without the music. In fact, if you grew up reading comic books in the 1980s like I did, these gangs might seem a little familiar to you in their manner of dress, lingo, and diverse ethnic look.

Upon its theatrical release in 1979, THE WARRIORS generated some controversy. Following a few incidents of vandalism and three killings involving moviegoers going to and from showings of the movie, Paramount Studios removed all of its advertising for the film and theaters were forced to hire security. The film was also criticized for capitalizing on rampant crime in New York City due to widespread poverty in the city’s ghettos and a horrible economy that prompted the city to request a federal bailout (which President Ford denied). Watching it now, you will be shocked that this film was the focus of such controversy. Compared to later gang movies such as BOYZ IN THE HOOD, MENACE II SOCIETY, and even COLORS, THE WARRIORS is tame. The characters are not very menacing in the sense that you see them attack innocent bystanders, rape a bunch of women, or otherwise act in a cold-hearted, callous manner that today’s gangsters presumably exhibit. In other words, I didn’t see what the big deal was as to why it would cause any alarms. At worst, THE WARRIORS may engender disillusioned youth to go out and start up a gang, but given the banality of the characters and a surprising lack of action in the film, I can’t imagine the average young moviegoer in 1979 to feel inspired enough by this film to take such action.

The director, Walter Hill, originally envisioned THE WARRIORS as a comic book-style film where the adventures of the gang were divided into chapters and each chapter would be introduced with a splash page. Due to the film’s low budget and tight schedule, Hill was unable to realize this goal. However, when the DVD of the film came out, Hill was finally able to insert the comic book splash pages as he originally intended. Even without the splash pages, THE WARRIORS continues to come off as a stylized, campy adventure of a couple of gang members who are reminiscent of a superhero group (like a superhero, each gang member has a fictitious name). The rival gangs the Warriors face each have a name and each gang has its own costume. And of course, THE WARRIORS takes place in New York City, the birthplace of DC and Marvel and where most of our classic comic book heroes reside.

In addition to its comic book influence, shades of the western genre can also be heavily seen in THE WARRIORS. Walter Hill is a big Western fan and before he signed on to direct THE WARRIORS, he was looking to direct a Western. THE WARRIORS is arguably even more comparable to a Western than a comic book. Street gangs have been likened to being the modern day version of the cowboy posse with city neighborhoods as their turfs instead of dusty towns. In THE WARRIORS, our protagonists must trespass across different gang turfs to get safely to their own turf. In the process, the gang is forced to face the gang posse that controls the turf. Also similar to Westerns, the good guys (The Warriors) and the bad guys (The Rogues) end up in a final showdown by the film’s conclusion. In Westerns, there is a code of honor upheld by the good guys and you see that to a certain extent in The Warriors as the gang sticks together come hell or high water.

As you can probably tell, there are elements of THE WARRIORS that I admire, but overall I was left unsatisfied and wanting more. To those who like the film, they call it campy. Those who don’t like the film call it crap. I waver somewhere in between because as much as I enjoyed its place in film history and pop culture, THE WARRIORS itself does not ultimately amount to very much. The most difficult thing to get past in this film is the poor dialogue and performances from the actors. Aside from hearing its famous one-liners (“Waaaaariors, come out to plaaaay” and “Can you dig it?”), the quality of the dialogue is on the same level of what you would find in a video game. I couldn’t tell whether the actors had no talent or were not directed well, but their delivery of poorly written lines is so woodenly stilted that any chance of making a connection with any character is immediately dashed the second any character opens his mouth.

Fans of THE WARRIORS might counter that STAR WARS also had shitty dialogue and look how great that movie was. True, but STAR WARS had Harrison Ford, it had a great story, and it had a lot of action. For an action movie set in the mean streets of New York City, one would expect a ton of action to take place, right? Instead, the protagonists spend an excessive amount of time simply running from one turf to another with a few occasional run-ins with cops and rival gangs. And even when we are treated to a fight sequence, the fight choreography is a mix of old STAR TREK fight moves and Michael Jackson’s BEAT IT video.

As for the story, in a classic case of mistaken identity, a gang leader gets shot, the murder is wrongfully blamed on our protagonists, our protagonists are on the run, our protagonists are eventually cleared of the murder. THE WARRIORS has a simple story whose simplicity I appreciate. I wasn’t looking for a complex plot of double-dealings and different types of interactions between various gangs. The linear story fits the primal, singular motivations of street gangs. Walter Hill also makes up for the film’s simplicity with outrageous costumes, garish art design, gritty locales, a fantastic music score by Barry de Vorzon, and a distinguished soundtrack with tracks by Joe Walsh and Mandrill. Hill eschews portraying a realistic version of street gangs and instead opts for a fantasy portrayal of this lifestyle.

Ultimately, I was conflicted by how I felt about THE WARRIORS. Its legacy and popularity has so affected my perception of the film that its difficult to dismiss the film outright as being crap. At the same time, I’m not one to gravitate toward campy fare and the film’s weaknesses are many times too much to overlook. I will probably need to see this a second time to fully absorb all of the film’s elements and finally make a definitive conclusion of THE WARRIORS.

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