New York City has been a supporting character in many films, but it’s never been so villainous as in The Warriors. For 92 bleak and bleary-eyed minutes, a group of surly young gang members must navigate the length of a city that wants to destroy them. Every inch of that journey is a grimy, post-apocalyptic hellscape, littered with garbage, graffiti, and boarded-up storefronts. The main characters aren’t good people, but everyone around them is even worse. They race to their home turf, with only the meager hope of surviving another day. In this film, the Bronx is burning, and the other boroughs seem just as likely to go up in flames with it.
Based on the novel by Sol Yurick, The Warriors hurtles from desperate beginning to weary end. A brutal, angry, sexual energy flows through every scene, as if a brawl or an orgy could break out any moment. The film begins with an assemblage of every major gang in NYC. This meeting occurs at the behest of Cyrus (Roger Hill), the leader of the powerful Gramercy Riffs. Everyone gathers in Van Cortlandt Park, where the charismatic Cyrus suggests all the gangs could unite under one banner. They greatly outnumber the cops, and could run the city if they were organized.
Before Cyrus can finish his big speech, shots ring out. The cops roll up, and pandemonium erupts. Cyrus falls dead, and a witness immediately points to the Warriors. They’re a small gang out of Coney Island, marked by their brick-brown leather vests. Enraged, the Riffs enlist the other gangs to hunt down the Warriors and wipe them out. That means the Warriors have to travel across New York City—over 30 miles—to their home turf without getting killed.
The remainder of the film is one big chase, as the Warriors hop from one train to the next, with killers waiting for them at every stop. Along the way, we get to know the members a little better. Swan (Michael Beck) is the group’s forceful new leader. Ajax (James Remar) thinks he could do a better job, although his temper and impulsiveness would suggest otherwise. Snow (Brian Tyler) is probably the most sensible and cautious in the group, but that’s admittedly a low bar. Finally, Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) a tenacious, street-savvy young woman, latches on to the group and joins their frantic exodus.
On first release, The Warriors only managed middling reviews and box office. Critics complained the film glorified gangs and violence. After this rewatch, I honestly can’t find where director Walter Hill’s shoestring opus glorifies anything. An edgy unpleasantness hangs over the entire story. Hill shows us a New York City deep in decay, replete with characters who are sweaty, dirty, pissed off, and exhausted. The fight scenes are visceral and savage. By the end, the characters stagger into a blinding sunset, with no assurance this new day won’t bring more of the same. To anybody who thinks anything in The Warriors looks fun, I’d challenge whether or not we’re watching the same movie.
That said, this is a gripping experience, built on an ugly, inescapable suspense. Beck and Remar deliver strong performances, playing young men on the brink of moral and spiritual oblivion. Van Valkenburgh’s Mercy is tough, playful, and smart; she might be the closest thing this movie has to a redemptive character. The fact we keep an emotional investment in this lean, mean story at all is a testament to the performances.
Beyond that, The Warriors is a fascinating cinematic artifact. Hill shows us a bygone era New York City would like us to forget: This feels similar to the Summer of Sam, where no street or subway feels safe at any time of day. Hill successfully bottles all that tension and fear into a startlingly effective little thriller. For serious movie buffs, this a cult classic worth checking off your list.
92 min. R. AMC+.