When Bill de Blasio was running for the New York mayor’s office a few years ago, Matt Drudge expressed the fear that de Blasio’s New York would look like the great 1979 gang movie The Warriors. The obvious retort to that: Wouldn’t that make you want to vote for de Blasio? Who wouldn’t want to live in the New York of The Warriors? The movie presents the city as this dark and complex labyrinth of colorful, fantastical gangs full of young men who think it’s perfectly normal to wear matching overalls and roller skates to a subway-bathroom rumble. It’s a world where a Manhattan teenager considers his options and thinks, “Okay, fuck it, I’ll join the crew of silently ominous mimes in old-timey baseball uniforms down the street. It’s my life, and that’s what I want.” I would move to that version of New York in a heartbeat.
There are plenty of reasons to rewatch The Warriors in 2015: the hilarious comic-book visual schemes of the different gangs, the wooden but over-the-top performances, the surprisingly intense fistfights, the intricacies of the intra-gang dymanics that only come out after you’ve seen the movie a few times. But watching it today, the best thing about it is its image of the grimy old New York that most of us have read about, but never got to experience. The New York of The Warriors probably wasn’t a whole lot like the actual New York of 1979, but it feels like a real, tangible place. Director Walter Hill films the nighttime landscape as an inky-black wasteland, with streets entirely deserted except for the mobs of young hyenas ready to tear each other apart. The score is a needling synth blare, the characters all come off as stereotypes of ’70s urban menace, and the geography of the thing—nine guys trying to get from the Bronx to their home base on the southern tip of Brooklyn—checks out. If you’ve ever tried to get across the city via subway, it’s impossible not to think about the movie, even if you don’t have a burnt-out school bus full of skinheads chasing you.
There really were kids like the kids in this movie. The documentary 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s, which came out the same year as The Warriors, tells the story of Bronx teenagers who were in gangs with names like the Savage Skulls and the Glory Stompers, and who wore crew uniforms as elaborate and distinctive as the ones you see here. (The whole documentary is on YouTube; have fun.) But knowing that doesn’t make this movie feel any less mythic. It opens with the various gangs of the city converging on a Bronx park to hear Cyrus, the leader of the city’s biggest gang, give a rousing speech on how they should all team up to fight cops. The movie presents Cyrus as a hero and this fight-the-cops approach as a really good idea. It never judges these kids. But it also pounds home the idea that there are total sociopaths out there who will use those criminal enterprises as reasons to just cause chaos. Which explains why Cyrus ends his speech by getting shot. Luther, the leader of the Rogues and the movie’s villain, makes for a chilling bad guy because he has absolutely no motive for the shit he does. “I like doing stuff like that,” he sneers, and that’s good enough.
The Warriors, the Coney Island crew accused of the killing, end up fighting five or six gangs on their way back home, and the relentless pace of the movie still gives the characters a bit of room to establish themselves. There are no origin stories here, and we never find out who these kids are outside their involvement in the gang. We never learn if there are more Warriors down in Coney Island, or why this gang, like so many of the others, is more racially mixed than any gang that exists in real life. We don’t learn anything about these kids’ parents or the jobs they work when they aren’t fighting each other.
But we learn what we need to learn about the characters. Swan, the Warriors’ de facto head, is an absolute cold-blooded asshole to Mercy, the girl he meets along the way, but he’s a tough and decisive leader who cares about getting his whole team home to Coney Island. Ajax is a mouthy homophobe and attempted rapist who throws surly challenges at everyone all the time, but he’s also a really good hand-to-hand fighter who doesn’t shrink from confrontations and saves his friends from getting hurt. Rembrandt, the crew’s delicate, magnificently Afro’d graffiti writer, is obviously gay, though nobody ever mentions it. Cowboy has a hat. These are characters.
Also, the fights are a whole lot better than most of what you’ll see in cheap American movies from the ’70s. The Warriors didn’t have the budget for a real stunt team, so stunt coordinator Craig Baxley (who went on to direct great-in-their-own-way action movies like Action Jackson and Stone Cold) had to teach the actors how to fight on-camera. The fistfights—the train-station showdown with the cops, the park brawl with the Baseball Furies, the bathroom scuffle with the Punks—are all intense and impactful, and they all move the story forward. We don’t get the satisfaction of a final rumble with the Rogues, but that only means the movie is true to the slimy psychopath character it’s created in Luther. And David Patrick Kelly, the hatchet-faced actor who played Luther, gave him that iconic bottle-clinking moment that ultimately turned out to be a whole lot more memorable than any fight could’ve been.
Upon its release, Paramount pulled advertising for the movie and allowed theaters to stop showing it. There’d been a few violent incidents, including a few killings, around screenings of the movie, and a whole lot of people considered it to be a public menace. Today, that seems ridiculous: This is a deeply cartoonish and stylized fantasy with no real pretensions at reality. Hill’s previous movie, the great car-chase flick The Driver, was the sort of existential B-movie where the main characters don’t even have names. The Warriors is very much cut from that cloth. It’s a movie that builds its own universe, and it’s our misfortune that we’ll never get to live in a world like it.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one.
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