Goons of New York
17-01-06 de verbo ad verbum
by Jean Paul Cativiela
Midway through The Warriors an all-lesbian gang called The Lizzies lures a detachment of Warriors back to their party pad, treacherously plying them with music, dancing, and some good Lizzie loving. It’s not long before the girl gang springs its cunning trap. “The chicks are packed! The chicks are packed!” cries one Warrior as the women break out their guns and shoot up the place. Here is some of the best clenched-jaw acting around; here is some of the most relentless hokum to be found in any cult film anywhere. The Lizzies are the Circe myth in action. Decoying the Warriors just as Circe did the sailors accompanying Odysseus, these jaunty lesbians turn the helpless warrior boys into that breed of swine native to Brooklyn: Sweathogs. Borrowing from the legend of Circe may seem a bit grandiose for a film of this particular caliber, but The Warriors is unique for being spiced with unusually epic pretensions—it is a film with a past. Its diverse sources include a socially conscious novel of the mid-sixties, and an epic adventure of the ancient Greek writer Xenophon.
The premise of the film: A rally to unite the teenage street gangs of New York turns to chaos when the vaguely revolutionary leader Cyrus gets assassinated. The Warriors must march from Van Cortlandt Park back to Coney Island through enemy turf. Along the way, the far-from-lethal Warriors must contend with such gritty realities as fighting cartoonish rival gangs and figuring out the MTA’s subway maps. Full-lipped Deborah van Valkenburgh—later Sarah Rush on TV’s Too Close For Comfort—plays a Puerto Rican whore who falls for the head Sweathog and delivers a stirring apologia for the life of the hooker as an antidote to growing old.
Each gang gets a theme and a uniform; this is the real attention grabber of The Warriors. The Warriors themselves wear shiny buckskin vests and necklaces made, I assume, from the $24 worth of beads the Lenape Indians got from Peter Minuit. The Baseball Furies wear proto-Marilyn Manson makeup and dress in full pinstriped baseball uniforms. There is an all-mimes gang, an all-orphans gang, and a gang that wears blue overalls and roller skates—roller disco meets Deliverance. Another gang can only be described as The Scott Baios.
In his foreword to the book The Gangs of New York, Jorge Luis Borges described New York gang life as possessing “all the confusion and cruelty of barbarian cosmologies.” When it comes down to it, the camped up, fanciful creatures of The Warriors have evolved somewhere outside of this cosmology. They are native to the two-dimensional realities of comic books, and now video games—you’ll be able to fight your way through the Playstation version of The Warriors sometime in the next year (“The streets are owned by the armies of the night and there’s no turning back!”).
For all that, this is not just another cult film. To start with, it was one of the top films of 1979, grossing about $17 million. It may be difficult to believe, but audiences back then actually took the film seriously, if only because of the gang violence associated with some screenings in Los Angeles and New York. Others saw art in it. Pauline Kael, without irony, called the film “mesmerizing.”
Walter Hill, the film’s director, was also taken seriously. And for good reason. He had already made his excellent getaway-driver-as-cowboy film The Driver, and later made the A-list blockbuster 48 Hours. In 1980, film critic Robert F. Moss even included Hill in his somewhat shrill denunciation of movie violence in a Saturday Review article called “The Brutalists: Making Movies Mean and Ugly.” Moss groups Hill with fellow “brutalist” offenders Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, and Paul Schrader, accusing them of defining “the urban scene as little more than the sum total of its most extreme forms of decadence.” He singles out The Warriors for its decadent “brutality,” scolding Hill because his “imagination is most fully energized by action sequences.” In hindsight, it is jarring to see a film like The Warriors so vehemently charged with brutalism alongside Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Dressed to Kill.