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The Warriors: One of the Best Pure Action Movies Ever

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"Nobody is wasting nobody. That is a miracle. And miracles is the way things ought to
be."
--Cyrus, "The Warriors"

Walter Hill's 1979 film The Warriors is a cult classic, a veteran of innumerable late-night cable showings and movie nights at your older brother's friend's house. It came out in 1979, was rereleased on DVD as a director's cut in 2005, was turned into a video game by the makers of Grand Theft Auto the same year, and will be remade by Tony Scott for release in 2010. It's a hyperstylized movie, based on a Sol Yurick novel that envisioned itself as a comic book rehash of Xenophon's Anabasis, set in New York City. (Allen Barra writes that it's also probably based on Herbert Asbury's 1928 novel The Gangs of New York, and he's probably right.

The plot of the film is beautifully simple, and owes its skeleton to Xenophon and Yurick: Cyrus, the leader of New York's largest gang, has called a truce and a meeting of delegates from all the city's biggest gangs to discuss how they can rule the city without fighting among each other, at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Someone assassinates Cyrus, and and one gang -- The Warriors, from Coney Island -- is framed in the murder, and gets a price put on their head. They have to fight their way all the way back across the city by subway. That's it.

The film is curiously, eerily empty. There are no famous faces among the cast, and we rarely catch a glimpse of a New Yorker who isn't either a gang member or a cop. The city feels devoid of normal life, like in John Carpenter's Escape from New York (rating: 83), where a postapocalyptic Manhattan has been transformed into an island-sized penal colony. As Barra points out, people aren't the only thing that's missing: there's also no drugs and very few guns. The stylized look of the film, and the nature of the gangs, is matched by the dialogue, as in the quote above. (After Cyrus is killed, two characters discuss the implications. "The truce, is it still on?" "If it ain't, we're gonna have to bop our way back.") It's hard-boiled street tough talk, as stylized as a hardboiled detective flick or a Coen brothers movie, and it sounds beautiful.

The fact that the actors are all unknowns helps add to the disorientation of the movie's cartoon New York. But they're a bit clunky. For the most part, they get the job done, because the plot moves too quickly for any one scene to linger too long. But the female lead is particularly bad, and she drags down every scene she's in from the moment she appears. Still, in the end, the acting isn't the point. The script is spare, functional, no character development expected or received. It's a movie about a long road home, and when the journey's over 90 minutes later, the movie ends. And the violence is virtually all hand-to-hand -- Cyrus is the only person in the movie who dies from a gunshot, and there's only one explosion, from a car at which the Warriors throw a Molotov cocktail. So the pain is personal, and the punches look like they hurt. The pacing is relentless.

There just isn't a wasted moment in the entire movie. That is a miracle. And miracles is the way movies ought to be.

Rating: 83

Crossposted on Remingtonstein.